This editorial first appeared in the Ketchikan Daily News:
It’s an unhappy situation.
Gov. Bill Walker has issued a disaster declaration for Alaska’s opioid epidemic.
Alaskans are dying as opioid abuse expands across the state.
Emergency medical staff in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Kenai, Fairbanks and Juneau administered a medication that blocks or reverses a narcotic overdose 1,315 times over the past two years. The medication is naloxone.
The communities listed above, as well as others, have established opioid working groups in an effort to stop opioid deaths. But the effort comes with a cost, which most cannot afford.
By declaring the opioid epidemic, Gov. Walker says the state will be able to provide standing medical orders for communities to distribute naloxone to affected communities and individuals.
The cost, according to Walker, is about $4 million. The money can be acquired through federal grants, including a five-year Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration grant for naloxone distribution. Department of Health and Social Services funds will be available, too.
But the state’s Disaster Relief Fund and its general fund won’t be spent on this particular disaster. Nor is the Legislature being asked for supplemental appropriations.
Alaska’s opioid-related deaths were more than double the rate of the whole United States in 2012, Walker says, with the heroin death rate over 50 percent higher. The number of heroin-related deaths quadrupled between 2009 and 2015. Plus, Alaska has documented cases of fentanyl and new synthetic opioid deaths in 2015.
Opioids include the illegal drug heroin, but also prescription drugs — for example codeine, fentanyl, morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone.
This is a disaster for Alaska. Gov. Walker’s declaration will allow Alaskans to seek help. That’s a start, but it’s only the beginning. The battle to prevent and keep people off addictive opioids is a journey worth taking, but it’s still a long one.
But it’s the only way to eventually save Alaska lives.