AZ health official: $3.6 million federal grant jump starts opioid awareness efforts in six counties

PHOENIX – State officials said federal funding has helped jump start awareness campaigns and drug monitoring efforts to combat the prescription drug epidemic in six of Arizona’s 15 counties.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention selected Arizona for a four-year, $3.6 million grant to combat the opioid addiction epidemic.

Arizona is one of 16 states awarded the grants, and the Arizona Department of Health Services oversees the funding.

In 2014, Arizona had the 15th highest drug overdose rate in the nation, according to a presentation from the health department. That year, about one person died every day from an overdose related to prescription opioid pain relievers.

The health department plans to use the money to improve awareness among the public and medical communities about the dangers prescription drugs pose to adults along with children and teens who may have access to them.

The department is focusing on six counties: Gila, Maricopa, Mohave, Navajo, Pima and Yavapai. State officials selected the counties based on overdose hospitalization rates and other data on prescription drug abuse, a spokesman said.

Tomi St. Mars, the chief of the Office of Injury Prevention within the health department, oversees the program. She said the grant has helped fund strategies the department has wanted to implement, but could not fit into its regular budget.

“The funding has allowed us to contract with the county health departments to do implementation at the county level, where the good stuff happens,” Mars said.

The department has distributed a community action toolkit to each of the six counties. This packet includes strategies for law enforcement agencies, responsible prescribing practices, increased patient education and better substance abuse treatment.

For example, the toolkit provides educational materials for parents and teens.

Mars also said the department is placing special emphasis on ensuring each county registers their pharmacists and prescribers with Arizona’s prescription drug monitoring program, which helps doctors keep an eye on how many prescriptions patients have.

Medical professionals share the department’s concern over the lack of education surrounding prescription opioids.

Teresa Stickler, a registered pharmacist and owner of Melrose Pharmacy in Phoenix, said the public needs to understand that opioid addiction can happen to anyone.

“This isn’t something that’s just for those people who you think have drug addiction problems. Your neighbor on the street who looks sweet and friendly could actually have an opioid-related problem,” Stickler said. “You really need to be careful on how they take these medications.”

Though the CDC grant has allowed the health department get a better handle on the opioid epidemic in six counties, Mars said more funds are necessary to take on the issue statewide.

The department plans to collect metrics on overdose incidents in the six counties to see if their strategies can improve public health.

Funding from the CDC is just one way the state is combating the opioid epidemic.

The state recently passed laws that attempt to prevent “doctor shopping” and loosen restrictions on administering the anti-overdose drug naloxone. Gov. Doug Ducey this fall launched a partnership with Walgreens to install medication disposal bins at 18 stores. And the state worked with the University of Arizona to develop free online training for doctors on how to prescribe opioids and chronic back pain.

The state has set tentative goals for 2018 such as reducing hospitalizations due to prescription drugs by 10 percent and cutting misuse by youths by 28 percent.