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Program in the works to combat drug abuse

Alarming rates of prescription drug abuse and misuse in the Northeast Tennessee region may soon be addressed with a program being developed by community leaders.
Angie Hagaman, director of the Diversity-Promoting Institutions Drug Abuse Research Program at East Tennessee State University, presented some sobering statistics during the February meeting of the Health Education and Welfare Committee.
According to DIDARP research, the United States represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet its residents consume 80 percent of all opiods, which are medications that relieve pain such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Tennessee and Alabama alternate holding first place in the annual report of the states with the largest number of residents abusing prescription drugs, and the eight counties in Northeast Tennessee are the state’s hot spot.
Prescription for Success is a program the state has developed to address the problem, and Mayor Dan Eldridge would like to see a local program implemented in Washington County.
A draft of the local initiative presented to HEW members offers a two-pronged plan. Priority one is to increase the number of corporations, agencies and businesses that have Drug-Free Workplace programs based on recommendations from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Priority two is to design and implement a comprehensive substance abuse prevention plan for Washington County and/or Johnson City schools.
Director of Schools Ron Dykes told committee members the administration randomly runs dogs through the county schools for drug detection. “We also have two assemblies annually, and provide education to the public on understanding what’s in your medicine cabinet,” he said.
Commissioner Katie Baker suggested the committee speak with TIS Insurance Services Inc., the county’s broker, about including the recommendations in the employee wellness program.
“We can spend as much as we want on treatment, but prevention is the answer,” Commissioner Todd Hensley said, asking what has caused the increase in prescription drug abuse since 1992.
Baker said there are a couple of thoughts on the spike. “One is the availability,” she said, referring to easy access from a band of providers stemming from Florida.
“The second is the concept of a lack of hope in the Appalachian region among people who grew up in houses with substance abuse, and think there’s no other way.”
Baker said the first phase of the program is to lead by example, and then offer help and training. “We want our county to be a model.”
Commissioner Joe Grandy asked what could move the program forward to be more impactful. “We need a way to measure (effectiveness,) not just drug screenings when hired, followed by screenings on a random basis or after accidents.”
Grandy said ETSU and the other organizations involved need to come up with what would be the best program rather than giving ideas to the HEW Committee and having its members decide.
Baker agreed to have a smaller group meet and come back to the committee with a program.
Following a presentation of the draft to the full commission during its Feb. 23 meeting, Commissioner Joe Wise asked if the results could be skewed based on the staggering differences in the numbers for Washington and Sullivan County compared with the rest of the state. “Maybe a difference in the physicians’ diagnosis method?” he suggested.
Dr. Robert Pack, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the ETSU College of Public Health, said a lot of babies identified as drug-addicted come from outside the area, such as Virginia.
During the earlier HEW meeting, presenters said the higher number of admissions in Washington County is also the result of some counties not having treatment centers.
“You’re never going to get apples-to-apples numbers,” he said.
Baker told commissioners the committee was not presenting a resolution for action at this time. “But we hope to continue the conversation,” she said.
According to Eldridge, the mayors in Northeast Tennessee have been concerned about strengthening the workforce since they first began looking at the numbers in 2013. The group will be meeting soon for a two-day work session.