ROANOKE (WSLS 10) - Battling the opioid epidemic in the commonwealth, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed four bills to help local health organizations better prevent abuse and treat people who suffer from addiction.
This comes as counties in Southwest Virginia continue to have the highest rates of fatal prescription overdoses in the state.
In a news conference Thursday, McAuliffe said he receives a report on the drug overdose deaths and injuries each week.
"Last week was the longest sheet I'd had," McAuliffe said. "Death, death, death, injury, injury, injury. These lists are getting longer each week."
Early projections show more than a thousand people died from fatal opioid overdoses in 2016. That's a 53-percent increase over the previous year.
The Bradley Free Clinic in Roanoke works to treat people battling with addiction every day. Workers there said those new bills will help them reach more people than ever.
They are no stranger to those statistics. They've helped 70 people in the past six months alone in their fight against addiction since launching the HOPE initiative in partnership with Roanoke City and the Roanoke City Police Department.
One of the bills signed, SB848 and HB1453 will allow community organizations like the Bradley Free Clinic to dispense naloxone to those they train to use it.
Janine Underwood, the executive director of the free clinic, said that bill alone is monumental.
"It's going to save lives," Underwood said.
Naloxone reverses the effects of an overdose and has become widely used in the medical community, especially for first responders.
"Every time the lawmakers pass a bill and every time the medical community addresses alternatives to pain management, every time something like that happens, it only helps to fight this battle. Those four bills are going to be critical," Underwood said.
Another bill, HB2317, allows local departments of health to administer harm reduction programs; exchanging dirty needles for clean ones. Colin Dwyer with the Drop-In Center in Roanoke said not only will this protect the user, but those who come in contact with them, like intimate partners or first responders.
"It makes it less likely that you are going to find one in the park, and less likely that a kid is going to step on it," Dwyer said. "I've found needles on my walk to work sometimes."
He says it will also be another opportunity to test high-risk patients for HIV or Hep C.
In addition, HB1786, which was also signed, will initiate a family assessment and plan of care from local social services if a child is found to have been exposed to substances in utero. This connects the mother to treatment if necessary and provides services to ensure the safety of both the mother and unborn child.
A fourth bill will help monitor prescriptions. HB2165 mandates that all opioid prescriptions will be transmitted to pharmacies electronically by 2020 and creates a work group to study how to implement this change. This could help curb doctor shopping among addicts.
McAuliffe is meeting with other governors across the country this weekend and said this topic will be on the top of their agenda.
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