By Cynthia Sewell, Idaho Statesman
Working as an emergency room doctor for more than 18 years, Tommy Ahlquist says he saw first-hand the “devastating effects” of opioid overdoses and deaths.
But traveling around the state this year while campaigning for governor, Ahlquist said his conversations with police, first responders and health care professionals were “very eye-opening for me.”
Monday, the Republican candidate released an “action plan” and a video on addressing Idaho’s opioid crisis. While this state hasn’t seen problems to the extent of some areas back East, Idaho currently averages about 200 opioid deaths annually.
The issue is not something only happening in other states, nor is it just an urban problem, he said. “This is a statewide problem. It is everywhere.”
Idaho has focused much if its drug-prevention resources on methamphetamine, but it needs to “get in front of” the opioid crisis quickly, Ahlquist said.
Opioids and heroin are becoming “a bigger problem than methamphetamine because with methamphetamine the chances of overdose are different,” he said.
The risk of overdose with opioids — particularly variations like fentanyl — is much higher and the effects much more sudden, he said. “With opioids and heroin, if you get too much you stop breathing and you die. It is a bigger problem in the fact that it is more serious for the morbidity and the mortality of the problem.”
Additionally, Ahlquist said Idaho needs to take a different approach to battling drug addiction.
“We need to figure out in Idaho that one dollar invested in the front end on mental health care saves us hundreds of dollars on the back end,” he said. “We have to get down into our communities and get some preventive care in mental health which will help across the board, especially in opioid addiction and overdose.”
Ahlquist, who more recently is known for his work in Boise as a developer, is one of a number of Republicans seeking the nomination to pursue the governor’s seat in May. His primary competitors are U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and Lt. Gov. Brad Little.
If elected, Ahlquist said, he intends to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths in Idaho by 50 percent in four years by taking these steps:
· Join six other states in declaring a state of emergency on Opioid Overdose and Deaths -- addressing the more than 200 overdoses and/or deaths per year caused by this crisis -https://www.cdc.gov/
· Use the power of the Governor’s office to raise public awareness about the opioid crisis and educate families and individuals on how they can get help and help others
· Under the leadership of the Governor’s office, assemble a broad group of leaders to help fight this crisis including state and local lawenforcement, first responders, medical professionals, pharmacies, primary and secondary education leaders, community leaders and churches
· Ensure law enforcement agencies and first responders have the training and equipment necessary to fight this crisis
· Evaluate and consider smart investments in substance abuse clinics that can help address this crisis
· Improve data collection, training, life-saving naloxone (opioid reversal drug) dissemination, and access to medical assisted treatment programs, and non-opioid chronic pain therapies in Idaho
· Undertake a full review of all state mental health programs including suicide prevention programs -- from top to bottom – and make any improvements necessary that could help with this crisis and the overall health of Idahoans
The Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.