Resolution addressing prescription opioid deaths set for smooth ride through Utah legislature
January 27, 2018
An effort in the Utah State Legislature led by Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, is looking to shed light on a different side of the national opioid crisis.
Van Tassell, whose district covers much of Summit County, is sponsoring S.C.R 4, a state Senate resolution aimed at recognizing, studying and preventing postoperative respiratory depression, a potentially fatal sleep apnea-like side effect that can accompany doses of opioid painkillers prescribed after surgeries. On Tuesday, the second day of Utah's legislative session, the resolution passed out of committee unanimously.
Yvonne Gardner, a Vernal resident who lost her son, Parker Stewart, to the condition in 2016, testified in support of the bill in front of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
"(My son) was a very healthy 21-year-old and, as his mother, I couldn't understand how he showed up at my house the night before he died happy and feeling well," Gardner said. "The next day, I got a call from his wife saying he wasn't breathing. … When I got over there, the EMTs told me it was too late."
Stewart had taken half of his recommended dose of painkillers after a tonsillectomy, according to a medical examiner. Six months later, his cause of death was ruled pneumonia. Not satisfied with that explanation, Gardner dug deeper and came into contact with a California professor who had been researching opioid side effects. She came to Van Tassell with the idea for the legislation later.
"I'm hoping with this bill … we might be able to find the rest of the puzzle pieces and find the exact cause before there are more deaths," Gardner said.
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Michael Catten, an ear, nose and throat doctor who helped create the resolution, along with representatives of the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Medical Association, spoke in favor of the bill as well.
Van Tassell said in an interview that the bill is necessary because respiratory depression is an understudied part of the national conversation around opioids, and as someone with sleep apnea himself, he recognizes the dangers of the condition. He said if the bill passes, the Legislature will send it to Congress as a model for future policy.
Intermountain Healthcare, the state's largest healthcare provider, has set its own goal to reduce the amount of opioids prescribed for pain in 2018 by 40 percent.
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-Ogden, a dentist whose district stretches into Summit County, said in the course of the testimonies that he and his wife have different prescriptions for similar symptoms and cautioned against treating patients with one-size-fits-all solutions.
"We want to treat all people as if they are machines, and they are far from machines," Christensen said.
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