BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Rep. Helena Moreno never went to medical school. But that didn't stop public health official Dr. Karen DeSalvo from mistaking the New Orleans Democrat for a physician during a recent committee hearing by addressing her as "Dr. Moreno."
DeSalvo immediately realized her mistake as Moreno, a real estate agent, threw her head back in laughter. Still, she didn't retract the title.
"She deserves it," DeSalvo said, praising the legislator's efforts to prevent accidental opioid overdoses.
From 2014-16, Moreno spearheaded a series of bills that resulted in getting naloxone, the opiate antidote, available as an over-the-counter drug.
"My first goal was, 'Let's keep people alive,'" Moreno said.
Now, she's focused on preventing people from getting addicted to painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin in the first place.
Moreno knows Louisiana's statistics aren't good: there were more prescriptions filled for opioids in the state in 2015 than there were residents. Accidental overdose deaths doubled in New Orleans last year, surpassing homicides for what officials believe was the first time in city history.
Despite this demoralizing data, Moreno sees a chance for Louisiana to go from a state with the sixth-highest opioid prescription rate to one that's a leader in halting what New Orleans city coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse called a "public health crisis."
"Massachusetts paved the way, Arizona led right afterward, then New York came by, so I'm just hoping we can be part of this chain of states — both blue and red — that are trying to do what they can to stop this epidemic," Moreno said.
This legislative session, Moreno is backing a bill that would limit first-time opioid prescriptions for acute pain to a seven-day supply for adults, with some exceptions. Supported by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the measure received House backing in a 98-0 vote and awaits debate by a Senate committee. Nine other states have similar laws.
The bill is one of several opioid-related measures advancing through the Legislature to fight a problem that crosses generational and class lines nationwide.
The governor also is supporting a bill from Republican Sen. Fred Mills, who wants to strengthen a state prescription monitoring program so physicians would more easily notice if a patient is "doctor-shopping" for pain pills. That measure passed the Senate 33-0 and is pending in a House committee.
Rep. Walt Leger, a New Orleans Democrat, wants to form a council to help coordinate education on the issue. And Republican Rep. Kirk Talbot, of River Ridge, has introduced legislation to ensure injured employees with workers' compensation insurance only are prescribed painkillers if the medication is truly necessary.
Louisiana has the 19th-worst overdose rate per capita in the country, with 861 people losing their lives in 2015, according to federal data.
Mills, a longtime Lafayette-area pharmacist, can't pinpoint exactly when so many opioid prescriptions began to pour in, but he said the increase was certainly noticeable.
"At some point, opioids became the prescribing drug of choice, and you could see more and more prescriptions being filled," he said.
Mills is encouraged by progress of the recent bills but is also concerned they could inadvertently lead to more people taking up heroin, a cheaper opiate alternative.
"This will always be an issue that we will be fighting," he said.
Mills said he received multiple calls from citizens concerned their sick relatives won't be able to obtain the pills they need under Moreno's bill. He assured them they should not be worried: Moreno's bill is focused on those who are getting the pills to treat acute, short-term pain, not chronic conditions.
Moreno is also quick to note this distinction.
"We're trying to prevent people from going to the dentist or another doctor for some minor procedure and getting a 30-day supply of Percocet," she said. "It's to prevent misuse and it's to prevent the pills getting into the wrong hands."
Senate Bill 55 and House Bills 192, 490 and 592: www.legis.la.gov