Gov. Bill Walker declared opioid abuse in Alaska as a public health crisis earlier this year. Between prescription painkillers and heroin, 114 people died from overdoses in 2016. Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships – or MAPP – held a forum on the epidemic Wednesday at Homer High School. The community health coalition of area residents, businesses and faith-based organizations put on the event to raise awareness about addiction as a disease.
Several presenters from various backgrounds addressed everything from treatment to the state’s response.
Dr. Sarah Spencer works at the Ninilchik Village Tribe Family Clinic and has been practicing medically-assisted treatment for seven years. Spencer described addiction as a neurological disorder, caused primarily by a person’s biological makeup and environment.
She says those prone to addiction have little control once introduced to drugs.
“Once that triggers the underlying brain biology that’s there and you move into addiction, it’s completely out of that person’s control at that point,” she explained. “Their brain circuitry has been changed, and it’s a problem they’re going to live with for the rest of their lives.”
Spencer ran down several medications used to treat addiction, noting that maximizing a person’s function in society is the goal of treatment, not eliminating substance use.
“So if you can control the cravings, we can treat the addiction,” Spencer said. “So medications that treat opioid addiction, they help to suppress cravings and the way that they do that is they maintain a portion of the existing physical dependency to suppress symptoms of cravings and withdrawal.”
Spencer said drugs like methadone and buprenorphine reduce the ripple effect of addiction such as crime and disease by allowing recovering addicts to function in society.
Andy Jones, chief of emergency programs for the Alaska Division of Public Health, is helping lead a task force to address the epidemic.
The group helped draft legislation to expand access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. About 5,000 kits have been distributed so far.
“So these are some of the prevention aspects we’re looking at, naloxone, drug disposal bags,” Jones said of smaller initiatives. “We’re going to continue in the coming years to reduce stigma and build recovery services, build medication-assisted services.”
The Senate is also poised to take up HB 159, which would restrict the amount of painkillers that can be prescribed at one time. Jones said besides legislation, Walker’s emergency order will allow state agencies to collaborate on other facets of the issue.
“And it’s got every state agency in it. What’s important about that? So often do we work in our silos in health to try to expand Medicaid-assisted treatment. So we might not be working with the corrections side of things or the Justice Department,” Jones explained.
Jones adds the task force will continue to battle the epidemic by visiting communities like Homer to see where they’re struggling.
Former addicts and parents of those in recovery also spoke. Annie and Rob Wiard’s daughter Meghan is in recovery. Both say it took them a long time to stop enabling their daughter’s habit and to let her make the choice to become sober.
“That concept that the way that I was loving Meghan, I was actually harming her in every way possible. That’s a really hard concept for a parent,” Wiard said as she described letting her daughter go. “We want to help our children, we want to protect them and we want to be generous to them. In this instance, they need to know that it’s their choice to get better.”
Wiard said reaching out to other family members of addicts can be a big help.
Homer has limited services when it comes to the long road of addiction recovery. The Southern Peninsula Hospital will assist addicts in detoxing when medically necessary. The closest residential and sober living facilities are in Soldotna. A local clean needle exchange program began last year and ongoing addiction support is available through alcoholics and narcotics anonymous.