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Lawmakers Investigate Deadly Opioid Epidemic; Promise Legislation

Joyce Russell/IPR
Lori and Lauren Peter, Cascade, Iowa, at Interim Legislative Committee on the opioid epidemic

More than 200 people died from opioid use last year, and in some parts of the state, by the end of this year the total number of overdoses will double. 

A statehouse committee heard two days of testimony on the growing number of deaths from prescription painkillers and heroin in Iowa.  Health care providers urged legislators to expand treatment to those addicted to opioids.

Mike Polich heads the UCS Healthcare drug treatment center in Des Moines.  

You're getting a picture of a methadone clinic. -Mike Polich, UCS Healthcare

He showed lawmakers a photo of patients standing in line to get methadone, a drug that helps addicts get off heroin.

“You’re getting a picture of a methadone clinic,” Polich said.   “Those people are standing in line getting ready to get their medication at 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning.” 

Polich and other experts were there to educate lawmakers on the role that so-called Medication Assisted Treatment or MAT is playing in the state’s opioid epidemic.   

But drug treatment programs across the state are overloaded with patients and providers are pleading for help.    

“For our area, the number of overdoses in 2016 was 875, and we are on target to double that this year,” said Area Substance Abuse Council Director Barb Gay in Cedar Rapids.   “Our patients, the average age is 32, with slightly more women than men.” 

Two thirds of the patients are addicted to heroin.   Others are addicted to painkillers or a combination of both.

People are ending up deceased. -Malissa Springer, Mercy Turning Point

Providers said addicted Iowans sometimes have to wait as long as ten weeks to get into treatment.  

“It’s like telling someone with a heart attack saying come back later,” said Malissa Spranger with  Mercy Turning Point Treatment Center in Dubuque.   “People are returning to their communities and they’re ending up deceased.”  

Spranger says once back in the community the addict faces the same conditions that led to the addiction. 

“One of my patients said when I walk out of Mercy, within one block there are ten known heroin dealers,”  she said.

Officials say currently only 10% of addicts get treatment.  

Other experts urged lawmakers to take steps to prevent addiction from occurring, including more 

Credit Joyce Russell/IPR
Rep. Dave Heaton (R-Mount Pleasant)

participation in Iowa’s prescription drug monitoring program.  

The program aims to prevent patients from getting multiple prescriptions without another provider’s knowledge. 

Others discussed limiting the number of pills per prescription which some doctors resist.     

“I think this isn’t the way to treat this opioid crisis that we have,” said Polk County Medical Society executive director Kathie Lyman. “I know better how to prescribe medicines for my patients than the insurance company does.” 

The director of the Iowa Board of Medicine briefed lawmakers on the nearly 200 complaints they received in recent years against doctors for improper opioid prescriptions.  

The last person to testify had a personal story to tell.  

Deborah Thompson is a familiar face at the statehouse.   She lobbies for the Iowa Department of Public 

Credit Joyce Russell/IPR
Malissa Spranger, Mercy Turning Point Treatment Center, Dubuque; Barb Gay, Area Substance Abuse Council, Cedar Rapids; Mike Polich, UCS Health Care, Des Moines


But many in the room didn’t know about her tragedy:

“Today would have been my 7th wedding anniversary and so I felt compelled to speak to you about this issue because I have a unique perspective on it,” Thompson said.    “My  husband Joe Thompson  passed away from an accidental heroin overdose last September.

“He left me and his one year old son Lincoln,” Thompson added.

Joe became addicted to painkillers after a serious auto accident when a doctor prescribed painkillers.

I think we need to be ready to go on day one. -Rep. Charles Isenhart (D-Dubuque)

“He wanted to treat his pain with a firehose instead of a garden hose,” Thompson said.

Lawmakers heard mixed news about progress.   Experts  testified that the number of opioids sold in Iowa this year is on track  to go down ten percent, though it still equals about 90 pills per man, woman and child. 

Others said the much worse epidemics in other states may eventually reach here.   They cited a recent drug bust in Omaha that included enough of the particularly potent opioid fentanyl to kill millions of people.   

The providers urged lawmakers to join most other states and pass a Good Samaritan law, easing potential legal penalties for someone who intervenes to help someone who’s overdosing.    

“We had seven fatal overdoses in Dubuque last April,” Malissa Spranger said.   “Many of the deaths in Dubuque would have been prevented had we had a Good Samaritan law in our state.”  

“I think we need to be ready to go on day one to get something done in the at most 100 days we’ll have to do it,” said Rep. Charles Isenhart (D-Dubuque), promising action in  the upcoming legislative session.