The Georgia House Rural Development Council recently met in south Georgia for our third meeting and took on our toughest topic yet, healthcare and developmental disabilities.
Our first meeting was held in Thomasville and after a warm welcome from local officials and an overview of this great town, we turned to the dark side they are facing on the healthcare front. We all know that healthcare solutions are complex and won’t be solved overnight. Our focus was to identify problems, listen to suggestions, and to hear testimony about ideas and solutions that are working in their area. Because of the difficulty of this issue, I’ll be addressing it with two articles. My next column will deal with rural hospitals and access to healthcare services, but this one will address the healthcare crisis that affects all of us, the opioid epidemic.
We heard an excellent presentation from Behavioral Health Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald about how Georgia is trying to gain control and get ahead of the opioid wave that currently affects every area of our state. In 2015, 1,307 Georgians died as a result of drug overdoses. 68% of those deaths were as a result of opioids. When you consider that 1,345 people were killed in car accidents that same year, we now have as many people dying from drugs as we do from dying on our roads. The scary part is that by all indications these numbers will continue to rise. In the past 15 years, there has been a tenfold increase in prescription opioid overdoses and we all bear the brunt in the additional costs for healthcare, court systems, addiction treatment, and lost productivity. Those costs will rise as many addicts are now turning to heroin to fulfill their needs when prescription drugs are not available.
It does not help to know that Georgia’s problem is not unique. All across the country we are seeing the same problems arise. Although we have a slightly lower overdose rate than the rest of the nation, 55 of Georgia’s 159 counties have a higher rate than the national average. They are both rural and urban and stretch all across the state.
The question is now, how do we get ahead of it? According to Commissioner Fitzgerald, Georgia recently was awarded a two year federal grant for $12 million per year to help combat the problem. At least 80% of the grant must be used for opioid use disorder treatment and support services. The grants main purpose is to increase treatment options, give better treatment access, and reduce overdoses through a state wide media campaign which explains the dangers of opioids and let’s the public know that help is available. With increased education for both the general public and more training for first responders, law enforcement personnel, and healthcare workers it’s a step in the right direction.
We must get ahead of this horrible problem. If you or someone you know is dealing with this issue, please reach out for help. The Helpline Georgia number is 800-338-6745. They will be glad to assist you in finding the help you need.