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Lawmakers tackle Virginia’s rising opioid crisis

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia officials are scrambling to get a grasp on the state’s growing opioid epidemic, legislators and health-care leaders said Thursday.

Hazel addressing the committees.

William Hazel addressing the committees.

William A. Hazel Jr., the commonwealth’s secretary of health and human resources, gave a presentation to the Senate Education and Health Committee and the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee about the opioid problem and how lawmakers should start to solve it.

Experts – including Dr. Mishka Terplan, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of obstetrics and gynecology – joined in the presentation.

The number of deaths in Virginia caused by overdose has been on the rise. Hazel said overdose deaths in the state this year may exceed 1,000, possibly 1,100.

Hazel said 600,000 Virginians – 7 percent of the state’s population – used illicit drugs in the past month. “Of those who are addicted, 75 percent take a prescribed medicine before they’ve taken the heroin.”

Terplan proposed treatment plans for those addicted.

“Addiction is a brain-centered disease and the symptoms are behaviors, so you have to treat both,” Terplan said. “For the biological basis of treatment there’s medication, but also what’s essential is treating the behavioral component of addiction, and that’s through counseling.”

Several bills will be introduced during the 2017 General Assembly session to combat the opioid crisis. One involves community dispensing of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, and another bill would put a limit on opioids being prescribed in emergency rooms.

Del. Chris K. Peace, R-Mechanicsville, said the upcoming legislation also seeks to change criminal laws affecting the opioid epidemic.

“We’re going to be dealing with bills not only in the health care field but also in criminal justice,” Peace said. “I have legislation that tries to introduce peer recovery models into first offender programs like VASAP (Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program), and we’ve known that peer recovery programs are efficacious in aiding people who are in addiction and long-term recovery.”

Virginia legislators said they were well aware that they must take steps before the opioid crisis deepens. The joint committee meeting was just the beginning in addressing the issue.