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KNBA News - Hundreds gather to find solutions to opioid "epidemic"

Joaqlin Estus
KNBA 90.3 FM

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA - Anchorage

Aug. 5, 2016

Organizers of a wellness summit in Palmer hoped for 300 participants and were pleased more than 500 people came together Thursday [Aug. 4, 2016] to talk about the problem of opioid addictions, and the growing number of deaths due to overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.  

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said a meeting last fall with several women in recovery opened his eyes to the problem. And he organized the wellness summit to find solutions before it gets worse.

Credit Joaqlin Estus / KNBA 90.3 FM
KNBA 90.3 FM
Left to right: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

  “Our communities are at risk and we need to take action and make sure we don’t end up like other places that you read about in Kentucky or  Indiana or Ohio that literally have been just devastated,” said Sullivan.

Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monagan said the opioid epidemic is a serious issue for law enforcement. He was encouraged to see federal, state, and tribal officials, as well as doctors, nurses, social workers and people in recovery at the wellness summit.

“I think this is a great conference for the fact that all these disciplines of various folks here, sharing their experiences, talking about what’s available, what we should all do,” said Monagan. “It’s a better effort I think that we do it collectively."

Last month, President Obama signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which expands prevention programs and access to treatment. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the next step is to make sure the bill gets funded.

“So we’ve got a commitment that we need to make to follow through with some of the solutions that require the resources,” said Murkowski.

And, Murkowski said, agencies and individuals need to find ways to partner together.

“If we say, 'I’m sorry this is my silo over here and you can’t come into it despite what you have to offer,' we’re not going to change,” said Murkowski. “We’re not going to change the dynamic, and we have to. So  I’m in the camp of whatever it takes.”

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who said opioid use is becoming a national epidemic, told the audience what’s needed is a broad cultural change similar to the one that has cut tobacco use by more than half since 1955.  And, he said, the solutions need to come from people who know Alaska, who know their communities. But he also said he’s optimistic for Alaska.

“The strength of Alaskans is far greater than the magnitude of the opioid crisis, as big as that is. And that’s I think where our greatest resource is going to come from," said Murthy. "Because we need people to step up in all parts of the community to help educate folks about this crisis, to help provide support for those who are living through it. And that’s the kind of strength I saw when I was in Napaskiak, when I was in Bethel, and yesterday when I was at Providence Medical Center.”

The Summit included other high level officials such as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, officials with the Veterans Administration, and the heads of Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Southcentral Foundation. 

[Posted Aug. 8, 2016]