CHEYENNE — Members of the Legislature’s Joint Opioid Addiction Task Force held their first meeting this week in Riverton to discuss Wyoming prescription opioid abuse.
The temporary task force was established during this year’s legislative session with Senate File 78. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, was introduced with the goal of identifying excessive painkiller dependence in medical facilities throughout the state using existing prescription drug monitoring programs.
The task force addressed issues of opioid education in the state, working with health care providers, pharmacists and law enforcement to identify significant areas for improvement.
Members of the task force include: Bebout; Sen. Fred Baldwin, R-Kemmerer; Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette; Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale; and a number of statewide health care and law enforcement officials.
Opioids include illegal drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and pain relievers available by prescription such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.
During the meetings, members compiled more than two dozen recommendations to possibly include in future legislation.
A primary consideration was updating mandatory education for providers and dispensers.
“We discussed putting pressure on licensing boards to increase education about opioid addiction for doctors, physicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists,” said Clem.
The task force also outlined ways to better enforce the use of the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program and shorten prescription durations, while allowing state boards the authority to make exclusions in special circumstances.
“We would want to excuse palliative care hospice or inpatient surgery so doctors could use opioids,” said Clem. “With these exceptions, we talked about limiting prescriptions to seven days for acute symptoms and 14 days for surgical operations.”
Steve Woodson, director of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, outlined potential changes to child endangerment laws during a presentation, illustrating a need for increased penalties for opioid-related abuse or neglect cases.
In the past, health experts have questioned whether the state needs additional resources aimed at tackling a problem that, by some accounts, is already stabilizing.
Recent data from the University of Wyoming’s Survey and Analysis Center indicate that opioid abuse — both prescription and illicit — may be on the decline as related death rates stabilize. Between 2014 and 2016, Wyoming averaged 42 overdose deaths from opioids. This number has remained mostly stagnant since 2012 and is well below the national average.
Rodney Wambeam, senior research scientist at WYSAC, recently published a study called “The Story of Opioids in Wyoming,” evaluating data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study revealed stagnated opioid-related death rates, as well as a number of findings to suggest that state and federal prevention programs may be working.
State health departments attribute part of the decline to the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program that was enacted by the Wyoming Legislature in 2003.
Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation officials have long said the department has worked with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to combat the state’s “significant opioid problem.”
Methamphetamine, though, is still the state’s leading drug concern.
“It is the education piece that I think is really important,” said Clem. “For a while, we were really good about emphasizing and educating the public on meth use and its dangers, but these things tend to come back. It is the same thing with opioids. It is one of those things that, while it’s not as robust as meth or alcohol, it’s still a preventable issue.”
Sommers said he believes the group’s role is less about establishing new laws and more about focusing on substance abuse treatment.
“We don’t want to create something and put a bunch of penalties behind it,” Sommers said. “We don’t want to create something that is all bound up in statute. The biggest issue is, when you have an overdose in an emergency room and you get through it, there is no follow-up. So how do we make a connection to make sure that an overdose doesn’t turn into a death the next time?”