Sen. Alexander tours Niswonger Children’s Hospital, talks opioids

Published 4:50 pm Thursday, April 5, 2018

With the epidemic of opioid abuse continuing to control the spotlight across the country, recently drafted bipartisan legislation is hoping to help tackle the cause in Tennessee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) spent Thursday morning touring Niswonger Children’s Hospital and attended a roundtable discussion to talk about legislation that was drafted alongside Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to address the issue of opioids.

Alexander, who serves as the Senate Health Committee chairman, was able to tour the facility with Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine, Niswonger Hospital CEO Lisa Carter and neonatologist Dr. Shawn Hollinger to see the work going on from staff to tackle the issue of neonatal abstinence syndrome.

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“Around a quarter of the children here at the hospital are going through withdrawals due to drug use from mothers. The staff here does a great job of keeping the children here until they are healthy,” Alexander said. “Despite hard work by excellent providers and organizations such as Niswonger Children’s Hospital, the opioid crisis is still ravaging our communities.”

Alexander spoke with local judges, doctors and other community leaders in the health field to gather information on how the issue could be addressed.

“We had a robust discussion with community leaders to come up with solutions to combat this issue,” Carter said. “It is a local problem and we have to have a local solution for it.”

It starts with working from the bottom up, Alexander said. Legislation penned by Alexander and Murray has various ideas to help tackle the epidemic, including additional research for non-addictive pain strategies, encourage safe disposal for opioids and work alongside departments like the FDA to help limit the usage of prescribed pills within the country.

“This legislation has emerged from six bipartisan hearings, where we heard from governors, the National Institutes of Health, and Food and Drug Administration on ways the federal government could be a better partner to states,” Alexander said. “One proposal, asked for by Dr. Collins at NIH, will help spur the development of a non-addictive painkiller — which I see, along with other non-addictive pain strategies, as the ‘Holy Grail’ in the fight against the opioid crisis.”

Levine added that steps have been taken at the local level to help combat the amount of prescribed opioids. Since the creation of a local drug task force two years ago, Levine stated the system has seen a 40 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions. During Thursday’s discussion, Levine added that one of the needs being recognized is residential treatment — which Ballad Health is looking to tackle by creating a residential addiction treatment clinic locally to assist Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Another topic of discussion is fentanyl, which the senator added was brought up during the committee meetings as being 50 times more dangerous than opioids.

“There needs to be a lot more education,” Levine said about fentanyl. “This isn’t smoking marijuana or popping a pill, this is something that will kill you. You don’t give yourself a chance of survival if you start playing with that drug.”

While various tasks are on the horizon, Alexander commended the efforts of East Tennessee for addressing the issue, adding that the federal level is hoping to do their part to assist the cause.

“You read a lot about Washington being partisan, and a lot of that is true. But on the opioids issue, I believe we all see it as an urgent issue,” he said.

Information gathered from Thursday’s roundtable will be brought to the Senate for future discussion in the hopes of passing the legislation.