DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa lawmakers will meet soon to address growing reports of opioid abuse in the state, though it’s unclear what action they’ll take.
An interim committee will gather at the state Capitol over two days this month to discuss the issue, including a new report from the University of Iowa that noted rates of prescription opioid overdose deaths in Iowa have quadrupled in the past 20 years — making Iowa one of only a handful of states with such a large increase. The report also recommends ways to reduce opioid overdoses and deaths.
The committee, made up of four Republicans and two Democrats, will hear testimony and then submit a separate report in November that could be a legislative blueprint. Rep. David Heaton, a Mount Pleasant Republican helping lead the committee, said he expects legislation aimed at reducing opioid abuse, but details are being sorted out.
“This is a bipartisan issue and I think we’ll get a bill and move it forward,” Heaton said, later noting multiple pieces of legislation are possible during the next legislative session.
Opioids include both prescription pain relievers, like oxycodone, and illegal substances such as heroin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there were more than 33,000 deaths related to prescription opioids or heroin in 2015, a figure that has brought a national spotlight to the issue.
Such deaths in Iowa remain low compared to other states, but they’re climbing. The Iowa Department of Public Health said there were about 67 overdose deaths in 2016, up from 28 in 2005. There were about 146 opioid-related deaths in 2016, up from 59 in 2005.
More than 2,200 opioid treatment submissions were recorded in 2016, up from a little over 600 in 2005.
Sarah Ziegenhorn helps lead the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit in Iowa City that distributes naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses. Ziegenhorn, who is scheduled to address lawmakers at the Capitol, said the number of opioid-related deaths in Iowa can mask the seriousness of the issue in the state because not all overdoses are fatal.
Her organization has distributed about 1,000 naloxone kits since June, and estimates about 200 have been used.
“From being in the community, we see a different story,” she said.
Naloxone is more available because of a 2016 law. Kevin Techau, a former U.S. attorney in Iowa who has followed opioid abuse closely, said more is needed. He said Iowa “is at a crossroads” in addressing opioid abuse, and there are initiatives with minimal costs that can have a significant impact.
That includes a needle exchange program aimed at preventing the spread of infectious diseases. He noted that a so-call Good Samaritan law, which would ensure some legal protection for individuals seeking emergency help during an overdose, failed to get enough traction last legislative session.
Legislative policy, he said, is “really just people kind of putting their actions where their mouth is.”
The University of Iowa report was compiled through the Iowa Injury Prevention Research Center at the College of Public Health. Its recommendations include more training for physicians in opioid prescribing, improving the state’s monitoring of opioid abuse and ensuring more health care coverage for addiction treatment.
Rep. Chuck Isenhart, a Dubuque Democrat, sits on the committee expected to address the issue. In an email to The Associated Press, he said the state “has made little progress” in addressing the opioid crisis since governors from the National Governors Association met in Des Moines last year and signed a compact vowing to do so.
“This interim committee is the Iowa General Assembly’s second chance to make good on that promise,” he said.