An opportunity to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic

An opportunity to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic

By Renee Unterman


As we observe Red Ribbon Week, a time when we focus on drug prevention awareness, the bill is coming due for the drug companies that recklessly flooded our nation with highly addictive opioids.

Earlier this month, three major pharmaceutical companies reached a landmark settlement with two counties in Ohio, handing over more than $250 million on the eve of trial. Many legal commentators have said that this settlement will be the first of many between manufacturers of opioid medications and state and local governments. Some of the largest drug distributors are still pursuing a global deal worth roughly $50 billion to resolve all opioid-related lawsuits against them. 

As a plaintiff against these companies, Georgia stands to receive a portion of this settlement – money we greatly need to attack this epidemic. Opioid overdoses stole the lives of more than 1,000 Georgians in 2017 alone.

We can learn from the experience of two decades ago when Georgia and other states settled a lawsuit with tobacco companies. Georgia has received more than $3 billion since 2000, yet less than 10 percent of this money goes to treat lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses, and even less is now used for smoking prevention. 

I believe strongly today that we must use the opioid settlement money for its intended purpose: attacking this epidemic. We already have a roadmap for programs that work, such as proven peer-to-peer recovery community centers and data-driven prevention programs, but the demand for these services is outpacing our resources.

Georgia currently allocates more than $114 million to fund programs for substance addiction treatment, support services for pregnant and postpartum women living with substance use disorder, recovery options for young men at high risk of relapse, and the GBI’s statewide drug taskforces.

We’ve budgeted in new funding to address neonatal abstinence syndrome to give extra help to babies born with addiction. In 2014, we increased access to naloxone to put lifesaving anti-overdose drugs in the hands of first responders. A law I carried in the Senate now requires prescribers to review information from the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program when prescribing opioids to a patient for the first time and at least once every 90 days thereafter. In implementing the PDMP, we sought to ensure that those with long-term needs for legitimate pain relief, including those in hospice care, would still have access, while we also sealed up many cracks in the prescription process by fostering more effective communication between physicians and providers of pain medication.

Yet there’s still so much more we must do, and I’ll lead in the state Senate to earmark these new funds to further the reach of these programs that are literally saving lives. Today alone, 142 Americans will die from a drug overdose. In the last five years, largely as a result of opioid addiction gripping our communities, the number of children in foster care has increased by more than 57%.

We can’t lose hope. I believe the opioid settlement provides an opportunity to turn the tide. We have our plan in place, and we will be ready to stop the spread of the epidemic while also rendering support for those addicted and those affected by addiction, including children. We must not waste these opportunities, but rather build on our successful programs to end the opioid epidemic, one community at a time, before it’s too late.

Renee Unterman (R-Buford) represents a portion of Gwinnett County in the state Senate.