Mississippi State Troopers and other state law enforcement officers will begin carrying an overdose antidote, Gov. Phil Bryant announced Thursday, following the release of a state task force report on how to combat opioid and heroin abuse and overdoses.
The task force made 41 recommendations Wednesday, some aimed at those who prescribe medicine, some aimed at law enforcement, and some aimed at prevention and treatment. The task force called for the state to spend more on providing treatment, and to consider taxing prescription drugs to cover the cost. It also calls for more severe criminal penalties for people who sell heroin or fentanyl, but Bryant said the state should not focus on criminal penalties for individual users.
“These are our neighbors, our friends and family members,” Bryant said.
The Department of Mental Health is issuing 1,450 doses of naloxone nasal spray to troopers and narcotics agents, paying for it with part of a $3.6 million federal grant.
“I think you’ll see a reduction in the number of lives that are lost,” Bryant said at a Thursday news conference at Department of Public Safety headquarters.
The department will also issue the antidote to police and sheriff’s departments, starting Friday in Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties. Michael Jordan, who oversees opioid treatment for the department, says it will distribute the antidote in areas where abuse appears worst, including along the Tennessee state line, in metropolitan Jackson and on the Gulf Coast.
Last year, 211 people were identified as having died from overdoses in Mississippi. Officials say they think deaths are underreported, and the task force suggests a centralized tracking database, better training for county coroners, and money to add six more employees at the state crime lab to cut case backlogs.
Bryant said he spoke Thursday to the president of the state medical licensing board, Dr. Randy Easterling, to urge that board to cut prescription sizes. The task force recommends only three days’ worth of opioids at a time for non-cancer pain, and only 30 days’ worth of benzodiazepines, such as Xanax. The task force also recommends that providers test patients for drug use, and that all physicians, dentists and nurse practitioners check the Mississippi Prescription Monitoring Program database any time they prescribe an opioid or benzodiazepine.
The state licenses 732 treatment beds right now, but officials say Mississippi needs more. Each bed can cost more than $40,000 a year to operate. State leaders say they hope the state-federal Medicaid program and private insurers will pay some of that cost. But the state will need to spend more to fight drug abuse, Bryant said. He said he will seek federal grants, but state money might be needed too. Bryant said he agrees with a task force recommendation calling on the state to tax pharmaceutical companies that sell certain abuse-prone drugs.
“Companies are making a lot of money off of these products,” the governor said.
He also said he didn’t object to Attorney General Jim Hood’s effort to sue pain-relief drugmakers to recover damages. Hood has accused pharmaceutical companies of promoting their products in a way that understated health risks and overstated benefits. Drugmakers deny any deception, saying that they have worked constructively to end abuse. They also contend that Hood’s lawsuit shouldn’t go forward until they finish federally-ordered studies into opioid benefits and harms.