In Palmer, Surgeon General says preventing addiction requires looking at larger community problems

A panel discussion at the Prevention Summit in Palmer. From left: Stephanie Allen, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Jay Butler, and Elizabeth Ripley.

The Surgeon General is touring parts of Alaska this week talking about solutions to the opioid epidemic. He spoke at the Alaska Prevention Summit in Palmer on Tuesday.

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Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the crowd at the Glenn Massay Theater that he sees some progress in combating the epidemic. Doctors are prescribing opioids less frequently, but the drugs are still available.

“The first drug dealer for the majority of folks isn’t some bad guy out on the street,” Adams said. “It’s grandma, it’s aunt, it’s uncle. It’s the next-door neighbor. It’s you all. It’s us, who have left medications in our cabinets.”

To solve that, the state’s Department of Health and Social Services is distributing drug disposal bags that make opioids unusable. Medications can also be taken back to pharmacies and police departments.

Elizabeth Ripley, CEO of the Mat-Su Health Foundation, said her organization is trying to prevent opioid addictions by partnering with other groups to address childhood trauma. That means getting at the root of some community problems, like racism and the unequal representation of people of color in the foster care and criminal justice systems.

“A crucial part of what we have to do is go upstream and say ‘We’re causing stress for certain segments of our community in disproportionate ways, and we have to break down those barriers,’” Ripley said.

Organizations in the Mat-Su region are hosting Undoing Racism workshops and conversations around race to begin the process.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, shown here testifying before a Senate committee in 2017, says President Trump’s top health priority is addressing opioid addiction. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

During an interview after the panel conversation, Surgeon General Adams said addressing the opioid crisis has opened the door for larger conversations.

“When you look at untreated mental health issues, when you look at un-wellness in our communities, all those lead to substance use disorder,” Adams said. “And if we use this tragedy as an opportunity to address those upstream causes then we’ll solve not only the opioid epidemic but so many other health woes that are affecting our country.”

Part of the strategy is helping people understand that health affects all aspects of our society, including the economy.

“Investing in health is also investing in jobs,” Adams said. “It’s also investing in safety and security. It’s investing in the things that they care about and they vote on. And if we don’t invest in those things it’s going to continue to be a drag on our economy, on our safety, and our ability to devote resources to the things that we care about.”

Adams said to accomplish these larger goals, communities need to focus on developing new partnerships with businesses, the faith community, and treatment providers that the use limited funding more efficiently and effectively.

Adams will be a guest on Line One: Your Health Connection Wednesday at 10 am on Alaska Public Media.