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Tennessee health leaders gather in Johnson City to discuss prescription drug epidemic

July 18th, 2014 3:32 pm by Nick Shepherd

Tennessee health leaders gather in Johnson City to discuss prescription drug epidemic

A fall led to back problems, which led to a prescription for narcotics. One pill turned into two, then four, then eight until a handful of pills is what it took to simply get out of bed in the morning.

This journey into addiction belongs to Jason Abernathy, but it could happen to anybody.

Abernathy doesn't sound like the stereotypical drug addict. He served four years in the Marine Corps and then spent 16 years working in law enforcement.

On the surface, it may have looked like he had everything together, he didn't.

"I looked fine on the outside but I was dying on the inside," he said. "I was absolutely dying."

Abernathy battled alcoholism and addiction for years before he sought help. He thought because he was married and had a good job that he did not have a problem. But he did.

Abernathy shared his story with state health leaders, treatment providers and recovery court personnel who gathered in Johnson City to discuss the prescription drug abuse epidemic plaguing the region.

The gathering was part of a series of events taking place throughout the state as part of Gov. Bill Haslam's "Prescription for Success."

Prescription for Success is a statewide strategic plan developed by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. The plan was developed in collaboration with sister agencies impacted by the prescription drug epidemic.

State leaders such as Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner E. Douglas Varney and Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner met with people from different organizations who deal with the prescription drug issue, such as Lisa Tipton, director of Families Free, Randy Jessee, senior vice president of Specialty Services with Frontier Health and Judge Todd Ross from the Hawkins County Recovery Court.

Varney and Dreyzehner held a forum to gather information and input on how best to correct the problem.

"We want to go into communities so we can talk to people directly about what's going on in their community, what ideas they have, how they feel about this statewide public policy document we're putting out and really to get engaged with them," Varney said.

Haslam presented seven goals for his plan which are to decrease the number of Tennesseans abusing controlled substances, decrease the number of people who overdose on controlled substances, decrease the amount of controlled substances dispensed in the state, increase access to drug disposal outlets in Tennessee, increase access and quality of early intervention, treatment and recovery services, expand collaborations and coordination among state agencies and expand collaboration and coordination with other states.

Varney said the people he met offered ideas on how to reach the goals, raised some concerns and offered suggestions on how to make the plan better.

Prescription drug abuse has been an issue in the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region for more than a decade. It is estimated that more than 32,000 people over 18 and 4,600 youth between 12 and 17 had a dependence on or abused illegal drugs or alcohol in the past year.

In 2012 there were 88 overdose deaths and so far this year there have been 70 babies born drug-dependent in the Tri-Cities.

Getting input from the front lines was essential for Haslam and his administration.

Dreyzehner said Tennessee cannot arrest its way out of this issue and has to treat addiction as a disease.

The truth of that statement rings true with Abernathy.

"We're just sick people trying to get better, not bad people trying to do good," he said.

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