Gov. Bill Haslam answers questions about his plan to combat the opioid problem. (Screenshot)

By Jonathan Mattise

NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam touted a $30 million plan Monday that focuses on prevention, treatment and law enforcement to attack an opioid epidemic that kills at least three people a day in Tennessee.

The Republican governor released details of the ‘TN Together’ initiative in a news conference Monday alongside Senate Speaker Randy McNally, House Speaker Beth Harwell, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins and numerous other officials.

The proposal would limit the amount of opioids someone can receive on initial prescriptions and put more than $25 million in state and federal money toward improving treatment and recovery services. It would offer a new public awareness campaign and education in elementary and secondary schools. It would also reach out to women of childbearing age who are chronic opioid users about the risks of giving birth to drug-addicted babies.

A yet-to-be-released number of new state investigators would focus on opioid work, and 512 beds at a western Tennessee prison would be repurposed to help treat opioid addicts, doubling the number of those dedicated beds across the state prison system.

The plan is one of Haslam’s last major priorities in his final annual legislative session before leaving office next January due to term limits. He said the state has already made a dent in the opioid front, but this plan reflects what officials have learned over several years about how to best tackle the problem.

“The encouraging thing is there is nobody in our state that I have talked to that wants to make this a political issue,” Haslam said. “There’s nobody that says, ‘I want some recognition out of this.’ There are a lot of people that say, ‘I want to be a part of helping solve this.'”

Officials believe the new money would help treat thousands of more people. About 300,000 people are misusing drugs in Tennessee and about 82,000 of them are addicted, said state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Marie Williams.
The plan drew a tepid response from legislative Democrats. They said expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would go much further in combating an opioid problem that claimed 1,186 lives in Tennessee through overdoses in 2016, which amounts to 17.8 people per 100,000, the state Department of Health says.

Haslam backed the expansion of TennCare, Tennessee’s Medicaid program, only to see the Republican-led General Assembly kill his proposal in 2015.

“The governor is committed to expanding health care in this state, which would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in treatment for opioid addicts,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville. “Instead, because the Republican supermajority consistently stands as a roadblock to expansion, he has to come forward with a $25 million plan.”

Some components of Haslam’s plan would:

—Only allow a 5-day supply of initial opioid prescriptions, with daily dosages limited to the equivalent of 40 milligrams of morphine. Exceptions would exist for palliative cancer treatment or hospice care patients with chronic pain. The change would also apply to TennCare recipients.

—Offer incentives for inmates to complete substance abuse treatment in prison.

—Better track, monitor and penalize use and distribution of fentanyl and other dangerous drugs linked to overdoses.

—Equip each Tennessee state trooper with naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug.