Lawmakers seek to 'save lives' by targeting opioid epidemic

Published: Friday, Jan. 29 2016 7:00 p.m. MST

Mary Jo Mcmillan, executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness (USARA), plays with 1-year-old Max Puente as Max's mother, Erin Finkbiner, watches after a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, where legislators presented a group of bills targeted at the opioid overdose crisis that is sweeping the state. Finkbiner is a recovering herion addict. Once she learned she was pregnant with Max she turned her life around.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mark Lewis, the deputy federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration in Utah, pulled up a picture of his son on his phone.

Anthony was his eldest child. Anthony was also one of 290 people who died in 2014 after overdosing on prescription painkillers in Utah.

"We didn't understand how much of an epidemic it was," Lewis said. "I would tell Tony, 'You just gotta quit.' (But) it's not that simple."

Sometime in the early 2000s, before public health officials realized the true scope of what was happening, the number of deaths from drug overdoses crept past gun deaths, then surpassed traffic fatalities, then continued to rise until they became what Dr. Kurt Hegmann calls "the biggest epidemic of anybody's lifetime."

"It's not even a close call," said Hegmann, who directs the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Utah. "And to date we have been unsuccessful at doing much to slow it down."

On Friday, lawmakers announced a group of bills to target the opioid epidemic in Utah, which had the eighth highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation in 2014.

These bills have "one overarching objective," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. "And that is to save lives."

Altogether, four lawmakers — one Democrat and three Republicans — spoke at a news conference Friday.

For many, addiction begins innocently.

Erin Finkbiner, a 32-year-old mom from Cottonwood Heights, was a thriving customer service representative with a supportive family when she started using — and then abusing — painkillers prescribed to her for her autoimmune disease.

When Finkbiner lost her medical insurance, desperation steered her to heroin.

She hid her addiction from her family and friends until, one day, she overdosed on heroin and was revived with a drug called naloxone. She found out she was pregnant shortly thereafter.

Finkbiner hasn't used drugs since. Now she’s the mom to 1-year-old Max.

“When I was in active addiction, I had no idea anything was available. I didn’t know about naloxone," Finkbiner said. "And I hid it from everyone."

Moss and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, are sponsoring bills that would expand access to naloxone, the overdose reversal drug that saved Finkbiner’s life.

In 2014, the Legislature voted to allow doctors to dispense naloxone kits to anybody who might need them.

The bipartisan support for the drug shocked Moss, the bill's sponsor.

Now she's is pushing to authorize any individual, including family members, law enforcement officers and substance abuse counselors, to give out naloxone so long as they receive instruction on how to use the kits and pass on those instructions to others.

That means vast numbers of people could get naloxone kits without needing a prescription from a doctor.

"If a family member goes to a doctor now, I heard some doctors won’t even prescribe it," Moss said. "They don’t even know about it. We need to get it on the front lines."

On Friday, Eliason also announced plans to run a bill that would authorize needle exchange programs.

Afterward, he said, “If you had asked me a year ago (about a bill to authorize needle exchange programs), I probably would have burst into laughter.”

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