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Arizona health department official explains how state is fighting opioids

PHOENIX — The assistant director of the Arizona Department of Health Services says the state saw about 1,000 deaths due to opioids last year.

Jessica Rigler told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes on Friday that each month, the state sees 250 overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal.

Gov. Doug Ducey declared a health emergency over opioids in 2017. It has since expired, but much of the infrastructure put in place during that time is still in place, Rigler said.

Previously, officials would have to wait for months to receive death data linked to overdoses, but that changed during the emergency.

“Here in Arizona, we’re fortunate enough to have real-time surveillance data, so we actually get weekly reports from health care facilities of suspected opioid overdoses … which gives us a better opportunity to target interventions and activities,” she said.

The declaration also led to ramped-up distribution of Naloxone, an opioid-reversal drug, into the community, as well as the unanimous passage of the Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act.

“(The law) helped to support better regulation in health care facilities, so that they could make appropriate referrals for their patients to behavioral health centers,” she said.

“And then we got a lot of engagement among the clinical community, too, to put together prescribing guidelines and education for our medical providers on best ways to prescribe and diagnose pain and addiction.”

Rigler said that although opioid deaths continue to be a pressing problem, officials are confident that changes in regulations will lead the number to come down over time.

“We know when individuals who have never taken an opioid or haven’t taken one recently are prescribed over a certain dosage or for a lengthy period of time, they’re more likely to develop opioid use disorder,” she said.

“Since the legislation has gone into effect, we’ve seen an 18% decrease in the total number of opioid prescriptions filled in Arizona.”

Rigler said the state has also seen a 29% in the average dosage of an opioid prescription.

She said she shies away from referring to anyone experiencing opioid use disorder as an “addict.”

“That’s such a stigmatizing term. It almost implies that individuals suffering who are from this disorder are making a conscious choice or have an untoward behavior,” she said.

“It’s not really a choice as much as a condition someone is suffering from.”

Rigler said the state knows that even with all of its efforts toward preventing addiction and overdoses, the epidemic will continue for some time.

“Of course we’d like to see nobody overdosing or dying due to opioids. It’s going to take a long time to reach that finish line,” she said.

“This is a problem that has been going for decades and decades, and so we look to turn the tide a little bit at a time.”

To reach the Arizona Opioid Assistance and Referral Line, call 1-888-688-4222, or visit the website for more information.

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Bruce St. James & Pamela Hughes

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