After a week full of events addressing the opioid epidemic, several panelists and community members came together in a town hall meeting Friday to discuss how to move forward.
The Opioid Epidemic Response Event, which began Monday, Aug. 12 at the Ardmore Convention Center, featured alcohol, depression, tobacco and drug screenings, community resource booths, kids science and arts tables, and several movie screenings and lectures.
The Center for Wellness and Recovery at OSU Medicine brought the event to Carter County in an effort to educate the community, which resides in one of the counties most effected by the epidemic.
OSU Center for Health Sciences psychiatry and behavioral sciences chair Dr. Jason Beaman said Oklahoma is one of the states most effected nationally. The opioid prescription rate for Carter County adults was 26 percent higher than the state rate at 148 pill bottles per 100 people.
“That may be one of the highest numbers in the country,” Beaman said. “Certainly in Oklahoma. We do see a large amount of overdoses in southern Oklahoma. We definitely have a problem and that’s why we’re doing these town hall events.”
A panel of four professionals working to combat the crisis on both a state level and a local level came together to discuss the epidemic Friday.
“The epidemic has had an impact on almost all of us,” said Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services senior treatment services director Jackie Shipp.
Shipp said she has a nephew who became addicted after being prescribed opioids for a back injury. Kim Ford, who assists individuals with treatment for withdrawal and recovery through Mercy Hospital Ardmore’s BreakThru program, said her youngest son dealt with addiction to opioids.
For panelist Stephanie Morcom, an outreach coordinator for Ambrosia Treatment Center, the impact was even more personal. Morcom said she fought her own battle against addiction.
“I almost died several times. I was on a ventilator in a hospital multiple times and almost didn’t make it out of that,” Morcom said. “So I kind of have a personal investment because I just know how deadly it can be and how hard it is to get out of the cycle once you’re in it.”
The fourth panelist, Mendy Spohn has worked closely with community coalitions as the Oklahoma Department of Health regional director for departments in Carter, Johnston, Love, Marshall, Stephens, Pontotoc and Jefferson Counties.
In their professional experience, many of the panelists agreed that insurance is often a barrier to receiving treatment for people in the area. Mental health is also a factor, Morcom said, and sometimes goes untreated, leading to higher risks of substance abuse.
The answer to addressing those problems is putting more funding into resources and creating resources that help low-income people dealing with addiction access treatment, Morcom said.
A barrier to creating change has long been the lack of state funding allocated to state services like Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Shipp said.
“We were trying for years to use some of our state money which was not enough to go around, but now we have more funding and the state is starting to pay much more attention,” Shipp said.
The department has been able to distribute thousands of free naloxone kits with a recent grant and plans to continue developing ways to target the opioid epidemic with a new increase in state funding, Shipp said.
“We have some new, steady funding streams that we have not ever had before so we’re excited about that and want to work with you,” Shipp said, addressing community coalition members. “It’s still hard to find today but hopefully you’re going to see it get easier and easier as we go through these years.”
In addition to more funding, the state of Oklahoma has also entered into a recent lawsuit with Johnson & Johnson, whereas Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is claiming that the company significantly contributed to thousands of opioid deaths through aggressive marketing.
“You’d think we would learn our lesson from tobacco,” Spohn said. “There’s huge pieces at play and I think we’re seeing that in some of the lawsuits and the information coming out of that.”
If the state wins the case, Beaman said the $17 million requested from Johnson & Johnson will go towards funding substance abuse services in an effort to end the opioid epidemic.
The verdict will also set a precedent for whether pharmaceutical companies will be held accountable, Beaman said.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of that is from the medical community and all the way down,” Beaman said. “It turns out that ibuprofen works really well, we just never used it because the drug companies were lying to us.”
Shipp said she would encourage community members to speak up and question prescribing methods as prescribing levels remain at an all-time high in Carter County.
“We’re taught to think doctors are always right, whatever they say we should just do. But there’s other ways to treat pain,” Shipp said. “Doctors sometimes don’t like pushback but it’s okay sometimes to try to make people uncomfortable to try to help them.”