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Doctors are cutting back on opioid prescriptions but not by nearly enough, federal health officials say.
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The numbers are staggering: More than 3,200 suspected opioid overdoses were reported in Arizona since June 15, with more than 400 deaths.

The magnitude of the public health crisis is dwarfed by the personal tragedy these numbers represent.

You can’t measure the pain of a lost life. A missing parent. A child whose future evaporated into addiction. A sibling whose generous spirit seemed to vanish.

Addiction is a cruel disease.

The waves of misery it generates wash over family and loved ones. Addiction denies society the contributions the addict otherwise would have made. It also has law-enforcement and medical costs.

We all have a role to play

So the opioid crisis is everybody’s problem.

It potentially involves anyone’s child, parent or sibling, which is why we all need to remember that recovery is possible. People do emerge from addiction and go on to live productive lives.

We all benefit from helping them do so.

The growing problem of opioid abuse and addiction largely began with legally prescribed drugs. It is a crisis that Arizona met decisively when Gov. Doug Ducey declared a public-health emergency in June.

This was followed by recommendations from the Arizona Department of Health Services that recognize the enormity and complexity of this problem. Some will require legislative changes.

Law enforcement efforts are critical

One strategy is prevention, both through education and by limiting initial opioid prescriptions to five days for new patients. This would expand the governor’s 2016 executive order that limited initial prescriptions for those covered by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

It’s also important to monitor how prescriptions are issued and to look for suspicious activity if large amounts of opioids are being prescribed.

In October, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued indictments against eight people in connection with an opioid ring in Mohave County that allegedly involved a medical billing assistant who used the position to create fake opioid prescriptions.

In August, Brnovich filed a lawsuit against Insys Therapeutics, a Chandler-based opioid manufacturer, and three doctors. The suit says the doctors “allegedly collected sham educational ‘speaker fees’ in exchange for writing prescriptions” for an opioid drug.

Addicts need help getting treatment

These law enforcement efforts are critical.

But so are other strategies that focus directly on those who are caught up in addiction.

Intervention can save lives.

Ducey senior policy adviser Christina Corieri said they looked at data from 2016 and found people who died from an overdose had been to an emergency room for an overdose an average of 3½ times before the fatal event.

Each visit was a missed opportunity. The data led to a heightened emphasis on getting people to go from the ER into treatment. “We are seeing an increase in referrals,” she said.

Assuring that treatment is available and accessible statewide is also a need. It can be tough to find a nearby treatment facility in rural Arizona. It shouldn’t be. Nor should a lack of insurance coverage become a barrier to anyone who wants to get clean and stay clean.

The next steps at the Legislature

Another strategy is providing a good Samaritan exemption so that a buddy can call 911 when a friend is  overdosing — without fear of being prosecuted for drug use. Lawmakers should look at the life-saving benefits of what some may see as letting a drug user off the hook.

It’s all about preserving life. An addict always has the potential to turn his or her life around. Only death changes that.

We need to be tough on those whose carelessness or criminal behavior contributes to addiction. But we also need to remember the humanity of those who become addicted.

There will be a number of legislative proposals next session to deal with the opioid crisis, says Ducey spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato. The subject will be a major part of the governor’s State of the State message.

Lawmakers should listen and be ready to help implement ideas that make sense.

This is an issue that deserves nonpartisan goodwill and bipartisan cooperation.

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