- Associated Press - Sunday, January 21, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers are making an aggressive push this year to prevent prescription opioid abuse, a problem that plagues much of the country and accounts for a large number of the state’s overdose deaths.

Senators have introduced four bills designed to reduce opioid deaths and prevent the situation from becoming as serious in Nebraska as in other, harder-hit states.

“I would hope that families who are struggling with this issue recognize that there are champions in the Legislature who are listening to them and trying to help with the very real struggles they are going through,” said Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, whose sister, Carrie, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2009.

Nebraska had 38 confirmed deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016 out of 128 total drug overdose fatalities, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The number could be higher, though, because death certificates often don’t specify which drugs are used, and many smaller counties can’t afford toxicology tests.

One bill by Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell would require customers to show a driver’s license or other identification before getting certain prescription drugs. Kuehn said having to produce identification could force some potential abusers to think twice.

“If you’re a pharmacist and something doesn’t look right, you’d have the law on your side to say, ‘I need to see an ID,’” he said.

Kuehn said the bill could also help pharmacies that want to keep their own internal customer databases to prevent drug abuse.

“I think we need to give health care providers as many tools as possible to address the epidemic in whatever way they think works best for them,” he said. “Nebraska’s numbers don’t indicate that we have the problem that we see in other states, but we don’t want to wait until it gets to that point to start looking at solutions.”

Howard introduced a measure that would prevent doctors from prescribing more than a seven-day supply of opiates to anyone who is younger than 19 if the treatment is intended for a sudden injury. Doctors also would have to discuss the risks with young patients’ parents or guardians if they haven’t previously prescribed such a drug to them.

Howard said children are more susceptible to prescription drug addiction because their brains are still developing. She said she worked on the legislation with Nebraska medical groups, which support the idea.

A third proposal by Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha would require doctors to discuss the dangers of opiates with patients before prescribing them such a drug for the first time. Lindstrom said warnings could steer patients toward alternatives or help them recognize that they’re becoming addicted.

“This is an issue that is not going away,” said Lindstrom, who saw the risks of opiates firsthand through a close relative who was addicted for about a decade. “We’re trying to do what we can at the state level, but it is unfortunately an epidemic that is continuing to grow.”

The fourth bill by Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha would require doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, veterinarians and others who can write prescriptions to log at least five hours of continuing education on opiates every two years.

“We want the people who are prescribing or might be prescribing to be keenly aware” of the dangers, he said. “People learn a lot of things in medical school, but sometimes that was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Riepe, a former hospital administrator, said lawmakers are approaching the issue incrementally without overregulating medical professionals.

Nebraska was the second-to-last state to adopt a prescription drug monitoring program when lawmakers approved it in 2016. The program gives health care providers a way to check what prescriptions patients have recently filled. Missouri became the last state to create such a program when Gov. Eric Greitens announced it last year.

However, Nebraska was the first state to require that all prescription drugs get reported to the program once they’re dispensed, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nebraska has also received a $2 million federal grant for training, treatment and prevention efforts.


Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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