VCU stakes claim in opioid fight

Illustration by Lizzy Cox
Illustration by Lizzy Cox

As Virginia lawmakers continue efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, VCU is asserting its role in fighting one of the deadliest epidemics in American history.

In his State of the University address Jan. 25, Pres. Michael Rao said the university is fighting the ongoing epidemic through treatment, education and research. Working alongside legislative actors, the university is implementing initiatives to educate the public and fund research.

Mishka Terplan, professor in the School of Medicine, said VCU implemented multiple addiction treatment programs — the most recent one called MOTIVATE, which began last April, is an outpatient clinic where a majority of patients admitted have an opioid use disorder.

“We are integrating addiction and opioid misuse assessment across inpatient and outpatient settings,” Terplan said.

Terplan said people suffering from addiction and substance abuse often face discrimination in healthcare settings. A setback in the healthcare world, he said, is an issue that must be addressed.

University researchers are also developing safer alternatives for pain relief to replace opioids in the current drug market. Terplan said addiction-related research is active throughout all research levels at VCU.

“We have to continue to grow speciality addiction services, and integrate addiction assessment and maintenance treatment across all domains of healthcare — but especially in primary care,” Terplan said, “We need more physicians.”

Terplan’s suggestions for expansion of opioid treatment services have their share of support from Virginia citizens. A majority of Virginians support strategies for battling the opioid crisis, according to a Wilder School poll. Eighty-two percent of Virginia adults are in favor of expanding treatment centers in their communities. Seventy-one percent favor providing housing for people in recovery from opioid addiction.

The findings were part of the school’s Winter Public Policy Poll. The poll also found 48 percent of participants were in support of providing clean needles to opioid users to reduce the risk and spread of infection.

Robyn McDougle, director of the Office of Public Policy Outreach in the Wilder School, said the Wilder School’s findings help policymakers craft legislature by providing necessary policy opinion polling.

Opioid overdoses remain the leading cause of death for Americans over 50 years old. With nearly 64,000 overdose fatalities in 2016, a 22 percent increase from the previous year, the epidemic is on the rise. Deaths from prescription opiates have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Virginia, fatal drug overdoses became the leading cause of unnatural death in 2013, surpassing car accidents and gun-related violence. Fatal overdoses in 2016 increased almost 40 percent from the previous year, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Opioids are drugs used to relieve pain by slowing down the body’s nervous system. These pain relievers are highly addictive substances — as few as eight days of daily use can lead to addiction. The epidemic in the U.S. encompasses legal drugs such as fentanyl, morphine and codeine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin. The rapidly expanding opioid market has garnered response from actors across Virginia.

In 2016, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in the state of Virginia. McAuliffe proposed $76 million to fighting the epidemic in the 2019-2020 state budget. The proposed budget allocates funds towards opioid programs and services and the expansion of drug courts.

Before the most recent bills, the General Assembly funded the Medicaid Addiction and Recovery Treatment Services (ARTS) program. The program increased treatment capacity in the Commonwealth. Lauryn Walker, doctoral student in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at VCU, said the ARTS program offers addiction treatment and management services to Medicaid members with substance use disorders, fully covered by Medicaid.  

“As Medicaid policy evolves, we need to maintain a focus on increasing access to high-evidence care,” Walker said.

This session, the General Assembly is considering legislation to expand Department of Corrections employees ability to administer Naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdose.

The Wilder School also plays a role in the university’s work in educating the public on the current crisis. VCU’s Wilder School will host a panel on the national opioid epidemic Tues., Feb. 6.

Saffeya Ahmed, Contributing Writer

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