Opioids Emerge As Key Campaign Issue In Tennessee Senate Race | Nashville Public Radio

Opioids Emerge As Key Campaign Issue In Tennessee Senate Race

Aug 26, 2018

In public appearances and small campaign gatherings, former Governor Phil Bredesen and Congressman Marsha Blackburn have been offering a few competing ideas for dealing with the opioid crisis.

Blackburn, a Republican from Brentwood, highlighted a five-point plan before a gathering of addiction experts in Nashville on Friday. Topping her list is a three-day prescription limit, like the one Tennessee's legislature just passed for the state.

"We do have to have those strong initial prescription limits to prevent Tennesseans from going home with a bottle full of pills that they don't need," she said, relaying a story about a woman on the Cumberland Plateau whose son became addicted after she made him take a whole bottle of opioids while recuperating from an injury. She says she really just didn't know the danger.

Blackburn wants a three-day limit at the federal level, and there's already some legislation being considered that would do this.

Bredesen, on the other hand, called Tennessee's new prescription limits a "rough cut." The Nashville Democrat wants more detailed guidelines written by experts rather than Congress. Of course, prescribing guidelines have already been updated by the Centers for Disease Control, and they haven't solved the problem yet. However, the Food and Drug Administration is also working on more specific prescribing guidance.

Blackburn also proposes tighter regulations for residential treatment centers, emphasizing that recovery programs should be "evidence-based" so people are put on a "path to recovery rather than a path to relapse." She argues that the road to sobriety is more like a year and a half, not 30 days.

"We have to get away from doing things that end up being a false hope," she said.

Blackburn also wants to put $10 million into an awareness campaign and find a "bipartisan solution" that would allow the children of women going through drug treatment to live with their mothers.

Sparring Over Drug Shipments

Finally, Blackburn wants to give the FDA new authority to intercept shipments of potent synthetic opioids created in clandestine labs overseas. The U.S. House has already advanced such a proposal.

But it's a related drug shipment issue that Bredesen is prioritizing. He wants to repeal legislation that "defanged" the Drug Enforcement Agency when it comes to seizing suspicious packages of prescription drugs. This was a law that "60 Minutes" and The Washington Post revealed was co-sponsored by Blackburn.

Bredesen didn't mention his opponent's involvement at Friday's opioid forum, but he was happy to point the finger afterward when reporters asked.

"She said, 'oh, this is an unintended consequence and we'll fix it.' Well, that was 300-odd days ago. Nothing's happened," he said.

So he says the first thing he'd do as senator is sign on to legislation that would restore this power to the DEA, and his campaign is already using the point as an attack against Blackburn.

Otherwise, Bredesen is less specific about his policy proposals but says he's interested in doing something big at the federal level. He also believes pharmaceutical companies need to bear some of the burden in responding.

"I think big pharma has some real responsibilities here, having touted these drugs as being safe and important in the management of pain for a long time and I believe should be held to account for that," he said.

The Takeaway

Both candidates are clearly harvesting personal stories from voters as they travel the state. Bredesen said a roundtable in Crossville meant to address retiree issues last week turned into a session on opioids at this group's request.

As campaign issues go, it's not a very partisan one. Blackburn is even proposing tighter regulations, which Republicans are often loathe to do. For the Democrat in the race, though, focusing on a local issue helps avoid national issues — like immigration — that are so polarizing and probably don't win him lots of support in Tennessee.