Federal, state officials discuss barriers to opioid addiction treatment (copy)

Opioid overdoses kills hundreds of South Carolinians every year. File

A group of Republican lawmakers has introduced 10 pieces of legislation to address the growing opioid and heroin epidemic in South Carolina. 

One of the bills would require high school students to receive instruction on prescription drug abuse. Another would require doctors to participate in a prescription drug tracking database to monitor how many opioid medications their patients were prescribed by other physicians. A tracking system like this already exists in South Carolina, but doctors are only required to use it if they participate in the Medicaid program.

Rep. Phyllis Henderson of Greenville said numbers provided to her by the state health department show less than 30 percent of doctors in South Carolina are participating in the program. Other states make participation mandatory. 

"(Those states) found dramatic decreases in prescriptions and even their rates of abuse went way down once doctors were required to start checking this," Henderson said. "Obviously, we've got a long way to go."

Henderson, with Reps. Eric Bedingfield of Greenville, Russell Fry of Surfside Beach and Chip Huggins of Lexington, held a press conference about their proposals at the Statehouse. 

Other bills introduced by the group Wednesday would require health care professionals to take advanced coursework on controlled substances and would require medical professionals to report to the Department of Social Services any time a fetus is exposed to alcohol or controlled substances in the womb. A "Good Samaritan" proposal would provide limited immunity from prosecution for people trying to get medical help for someone who's overdosing.

"South Carolina ranks in the highest quartile for painkiller prescriptions per person and has seen prescriptions increase each year," their press release said. "Similarly, South Carolinians are using heroin at much higher levels. The proposed pieces of legislation, and other pieces forthcoming, will be a strong attempt to address the statewide issue of heroin and opioid abuse."

According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, opioid-related deaths across South Carolina jumped from 237 in 2013 to 516 in 2014. In 2015, more than 600 people died from opioid and heroin overdoses. 

Meanwhile, data provided by DHEC late last year show doctors in South Carolina were tracking to prescribe more highly addictive Schedule II drugs in 2016 than they did the year before. 

In a prepared statement about the legislative proposals, Bedingfield explained that the issue is personal. 

The best of health, hospital and science coverage in South Carolina, delivered to your inbox weekly.

"My family and I watched addiction eventually take our oldest son away," Bedingfield said. "His death, and my desire to help others, has led me to seek solutions. My eyes are wide open and it's time to think like those who are hurting.”

Other state lawmakers around the country are channeling their grief in similar ways. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that in statehouses across the country lawmakers with loved ones who fell victim to drugs are leading the fight against the nation's deadly opioid-abuse crisis, drawing on tragic personal experience to attack the problem.

Henderson acknowledged that the South Carolina lawmakers face an uphill battle to pass 10 new laws. 

It’s a lot of bills," she said. "It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some education, even with our colleagues."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.