Eric Bedingfield knows firsthand the pain of the opioid crisis facing the state.
Bedingfield, a Republican state representative from Greenville, lost his 26-year-old son to opioid abuse in 2016. He turned grief into action when he was appointed to lead the S.C. House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, helping shape a bill that would require the Department of Health and Environmental Control to develop a voluntary non-opioid directive form allowing a person to deny or refuse the administering or prescribing of a controlled substance that contains an opioid.
“It took a generation to get into this problem, and may take that long to finally get out,” Bedingfield said. “My focus has been on this for the past 18 months, and I hope to keep it a major topic.”
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster declared a statewide opioid public health emergency last month, allowing state officials to use emergency management resources like those normally called upon in a natural disaster to combat the opioid epidemic.
The governor issued an executive order limiting state Medicaid recipients to five-day initial prescriptions for acute and post-operative pain medications. At McMaster’s request, the state Public Employee Benefit Authority agreed to enact similar restrictions for state health plan participants.
McMaster asked the General Assembly to make the five-day limitation state law.
“The issue is high on the priority list of (House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville), and I expect the House to take up each piece of legislation that is brought forward,” said Bedingfield, who hopes to create prevention programs for children and physicians. “This epidemic is affecting the entire state. A number of people are dying, and families are paying the price.”
DHEC statistics report 550 people died from prescription opioid overdoses in 2016 in South Carolina, a 7% increase from 2015 and up 18% from 2014. Fatal heroin overdoses increased by 67% from 2014 to 2015, a year that also saw the number of deaths from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses in the state eclipse the number of homicides. Many people turn to illegal heroin when prescription opioids are no longer available, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The S.C. Medical Association applauded McMaster’s “aggressive and proactive stance.”
“We look forward to working with the governor’s task force to create effective means of limiting access to unneeded and unwarranted opioids in South Carolina,” director of community engagement Rebecca Brannon said in a statement. “The governor’s actions recognize the need for professional health care providers to have the ability to care for their patients’ needs, but also the very real dangers of excessive opioid use in the health care field.”
A second executive order established the Opioid Emergency Response Team, led by State Law Enforcement Division chief Mark Keel and Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services interim director Sara Goldsby.
S.C. Adjutant General Robert Livingston also will have a role in the response team, which will also include representatives from state and federal law enforcement, state health and regulatory agencies and health care treatment providers.
The response team will hold monthly meetings for the next six months to evaluate information and develop strategic plans.
“Unfortunately, we know that we have not yet reached the peak of the opioid crisis,” Goldsby said. “While our work in South Carolina is urgent and ongoing, cross-sector coordination is key to comprehensively addressing this public health crisis and its related consequences.”
Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy addressed the opioid epidemic earlier this month at the Statehouse. She said her company, a global manufacturer of respiratory medications, is struggling with the subject.
“We are having a critical issue in hospitals with the ability to treat pain during surgery, because the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) is controlling the amount of quota we get to make those products and get them to hospitals,” Kennedy said. “We have to take steps for treatment (and) steps to look at drug delivery.
“There are two issues here. First, we have to take care of our patients, but we also have to solve the opioid addiction problem. We’re working to solve one side of the equation and donating to reputable causes to help the other.”
Bedingfield’s mission is to keep lawmakers cognizant of the people the epidemic affects.
“One piece of the puzzle I hope to bring to the table is us not losing the humanitarian aspect of what we’re here to talk about today,” Bedingfield said. “My family is just one of the more than 600 in South Carolina who have lost loved ones as a result of this epidemic. These people who find themselves addicted are not morally corrupt individuals. These are people who have a disease and who need help.”