A bill filed in the N.C. Senate last week aims to prevent people from abusing legal drugs and guide those with drug dependencies toward treatment to address the opioid epidemic in North Carolina.
If passed, Senate Bill 546, or the Opioid Epidemic Response Act, would eliminate the state registration requirement for prescribers of buprenorphine, a medication used to treat opioid addictions. It would also decriminalize drug testing equipment used to detect contaminants in controlled substances, remove the ban on the use of state funds to purchase supplies for the syringe exchange program and revise the N.C. Controlled Substances Reporting System (CSRS).
The CSRS is a central system available to prescribers and dispensers that collects information on controlled substance prescriptions.
The bill’s primary sponsor, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-District 50, was also a primary sponsor of the 2017 STOP Act, which improved opioid prescribing practices and strengthened the CSRS, and the 2018 HOPE Act, giving law enforcement access to that system.
“The latest act is just a follow-up to those, an enhancement of that legislation if you will, and it’s basically to fill in some of the holes and to refine the previous two,” Davis said.
The previous legislation does not mandate the use of the CSRS for benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes Xanax and Valium primarily used for treating anxiety. These types of drugs are involved in over 30 percent of overdoses involving opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The new bill seeks to standardize treatment facilities through an application and approval process conducted by the State Opioid Treatment Authority.
“We want to ensure that the treatment facilities are adhering to national standards and are members of a state-controlled organization,” Davis said.
Dr. Susan Kansagra, the Chronic Disease and Injury section chief in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the Opioid Epidemic Response Act builds on the momentum of previous legislation and emphasized that mitigating the effects of this crisis will take time.
She explained that, if passed, the removal of the state registration requirement will make it easier for providers to treat addictions. She said closing this coverage gap is important to responding to the epidemic.
“We know that opioid use disorder is a chronic disease that requires a lifetime of treatment and recovery support, and you can’t do that if you don’t have access to medical care, so making sure you have access to medical care with affordable health insurance is really an integral need,” she said.
Kansagra said though North Carolina is fortunate to have received federal funding to expand the capacity of treatment providers, it is still challenging to reach rural areas.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do here at DHHS is to train more providers and more primary care physicians to be able to do addiction treatment, including physicians in rural areas,” she said.
While imposing stricter law enforcement measures is an option, Davis said the bill recognizes that policing alone will not end the epidemic.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem, so we want to drive people toward treatment, and we want to make sure that the treatment facilities are on the up and up, they’re using the best practices and we want to hold them accountable for being efficient and graduating these individuals from drug dependency,” he said.
He said he is open to amendments and feels good about the bill surviving.
Kansagra said combating the epidemic is a collaborative effort.
“It feels like there’s really a multi-constituent response already that’s happening and awareness about the issue, which is good because that’s really going to take a multi-prompt effort to help turn the tide,” she said.
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