McMaster declares opioid crisis public health emergency

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Gov. Henry McMaster has declared a statewide public health emergency to address South Carolina’s growing opioid addiction and overdose crisis.

“According to the statistics, there’s a silent hurricane going on in our state that hits us, and it’s getting worse,” McMaster said during a recent press conference. “It hits us every year, and it’s called the opioid crisis.”

As part of the declaration, McMaster has ordered the establishment of an Opioid Emergency Response Team, which consists of federal and state law enforcement agencies, state health regulatory agencies, and health care treatment providers.

The team will be led by State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and Sara Golsby, director of the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. It will meet monthly “to assess outcomes and evaluate new information,” according to McMaster.

McMaster said the team is loosely based on Operation Jackpot, a federal task force that convicted more than 100 cannabis smugglers in South Carolina during the 1980s.

“We believe this is the way to conquer this crisis. In fact, it’s the only way,” he said.

Since 2011, more than 3,000 South Carolinians have died from prescription opioid overdoses, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Over the past three years, opioid-related deaths have “outpaced” homicides and drunk-driving deaths by nearly double, according to McMaster. In 2016, for instance, there were 366 homicide-related deaths and 331 drunk-driving-related deaths; there were 616 opioid overdose deaths the same year.

Greenville County is at the epicenter of the state’s ongoing opioid problem. In 2015, about 70 people died from opioid overdoses. The year before, 65 people died from opioid overdoses, according to the Greenville County Coroner’s Office.

Dr. Shaniece Criss, an assistant professor of health science at Furman University, told the Greenville Journal that the region’s opioid crisis has likely been fueled by the sudden emergence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. In recent years, illegal manufacturing of fentanyl has skyrocketed and led to an alarming increase in overdose deaths.

In Greenville County, there were 33 fentanyl-related deaths in 2015, the last year data is available. That’s more than five times the number of fentanyl-related deaths in 2013, according to Greenville County Deputy Coroner Jeff Fowler.

McMaster has also issued an executive order for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services to limit opioid prescriptions for acute and post-operation pain to a maximum of five days for Medicaid recipients.

South Carolina ranks in the highest quartile for opioid prescriptions per person and has seen prescriptions increase each year, according to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. In 2016, for instance, nearly 5 million opioid prescriptions were issued.

But the limitations won’t take effect immediately. Medicaid has until March 1, 2018, to develop and publicize details about the policy, which must allow exceptions for patients who take opioids for chronic pain associated with cancer and other serious illnesses.

McMaster has also called on the Legislature to pass legislation making the five-day limitation a statewide law for all opioid prescriptions.

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