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Sullivan DA hopes 'health emergency' tag opens dialogue on opioids

Rain Smith • Oct 27, 2017 at 2:00 PM

The Trump administration's declaration that the opioid crisis has created a public health emergency is being lauded by Sullivan County's chief prosecutor, whose local battle with the drugs has already escalated into a lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus filed the state suit in June in conjunction with lead prosecutors in neighboring Washington and Hawkins Counties. For more than a year, Staubus has referred to opioid abuse as an "epidemic," and he is hopeful that Thursday's announcement from President Donald Trump will open national dialogue on an all-too familiar problem for Northeast Tennessee.

"Before you get a solution you have to acknowledge there's a problem, and this is the first step," Staubus said. "I hope people will start discussing it in a substantial way."

"I'm glad the president has recognized this is not just a local problem, but so serious it affects us as a nation."

According to the Associated Press, Trump's declaration will expand access to medical services in rural areas. As a result of the public health emergency tag, officials will be able to shift funding to provide more substance abuse treatment and secure grants for the unemployed, among other things.

Staubus acknowledges there is no one good answer to curb the scourge of opioid abuse, but he contends any action must be a two-pronged attack from both health officials and law enforcement.

"How do we deal with the people already addicted and their lives are ruined?" asked Staubus. "Then we have to look to the future — how do we stop this moving forward?"

Statistics from local prosecutors state that between 2005 and 2015, drug overdose deaths increased by 250 percent in Tennessee. During 2015 in Sullivan County, 71.3 percent of all overdose deaths involved opioids, while opioids were directly involved in more than 100 deaths over the course of 2016. In the first few months of 2017, 48 of every 1,000 births in Sullivan County were drug-addicted babies.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that opioids — including illicit drugs like heroin, along with prescribed drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine — kill 100 Americans each day.

"It's going to come to every corner of the country eventually," said Staubus. "I think the president recognizes that. It's serious enough that we all start looking for solutions and ways to battle the problem — at least curb the number of deaths, babies born addicted and amount of drugs people are prescribed."

As previously reported by the Times-News, one of the three pharmaceutical companies being sued by Staubus and the other DAs had attempted to have the case moved to the federal level. But Thomas A. Varlan, chief judge for the U.S. Eastern District of Tennessee, ruled last Friday that the case would stay in Sullivan County.

The prosecutors' lawsuit argues that police departments, schools, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and taxpayers will bear the cost of the opioid crisis for years to come. The plaintiffs want not only restitution from the pharmaceutical companies, but also an injunction to stop "the flood of opioids" into Northeast Tennessee.

Staubus told the Times-News that he expects several pretrial motions from the defendants before the case moves forward.

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