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Vicksburg physician appointed to state drug task force

Vicksburg family practitioner Dr. Randy Easterling has been appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant to serve on a select task force on opioid and heroin addiction and diversion.

A nationally recognized expert on opioid abuse disorder, Easterling has practiced family medicine and addiction medicine in Vicksburg for the past 30 years, and has served as medical director of Marion Hill Chemical Dependency Unit for the past 29 years.

In September of 2015, he was asked by the American Medical Association to represent America’s physicians before a Senate committee on opioid addiction in Washington, DC.  The committee’s hearings contributed to bipartisan legislation known as the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act signed into law by President Obama last year.

Easterling said he had previously discussed the state’s opioid and heroin problem with Bryant.

“We’re now No. 5 in the nation in per capita prescribed opioiods, so it is a serious problem” he said, adding Bryant asked him and John Dowdy, the new director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, to co-chair the task force. He said the task force met for the first time two weeks ago.

The group represents medicine, nursing, pharmacy, law enforcement and the state’s Division of Medicaid. “We’re going to look at the problem in our state and see what we can do to impact it,” he said.

Easterling said the Center for Disease Control four years ago said opioid use disorder and opioid addiction and death is the No. 1 health problem in America, “And they haven’t changed that.”

“More people die from opioid overdose annually than die from gunshots and car wrecks combined, so it’s a huge problem.”

Until about four or five years ago, he said, it was rare to find a heroin addict, adding that as medical director for the Marion Hill Chemical Dependency Unit he now sees heroin addicts daily, not just one or two, but five or six.

“The problem with that, is heroin is predominantly used I.V. (intravenously), so accompanying with the heroin epidemic is an increase in HIV and increase in hepatitis C; we also have an increase in abscesses from people missing the vein,” he said. “It’s multifaceted problem.”

He said the cost of a bag of heroin in Jackson is cheaper than a pack of cigarettes.

A member of the state’s Board of Medical Licensure, Easterling said the board four years ago passed opioid prescription rules that tightened up pain clinics and prescribing the drugs. He said the board will revisit the rules and strengthen them.

“So since we clamped down on opioid prescribing, the free market makes the price go up, so heroin is more attractive (because it is cheaper).”

The majority of heroin addicts, Easterling said, started with opioids, and it is becoming more prevalent among teenagers and in white suburbia.

“Probably the fastest growing group of heroin abusers now are middle class housewives,” he said. “They started out with the pills and then they felt they were going to get caught and now they use the heroin.”

The people who can write prescriptions for schedules medications like opiods are doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and podiatrists. “These are the groups we want to address,” he said.

While heroin is primarily a law enforcement activity, he believes there is sufficient evidence to show reduction in opioid prescriptions will eventually reduce the number of heroin addicts.

“Hopefully, because you’re going to have less pill addicts,” he said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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