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Attendees at a National Governors Association panel discussion on the opioid abuse epidemic in Providence, Rhode Island on July 13, 2017. Photo by Michelle Rindels.

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island —  Governors who gathered for a panel discussion on Thursday in a Rhode Island hotel ballroom talked about what they have been doing to curb the opioid epidemic in their states.

But mostly, they talked about how what they have been doing — executive orders, tasks forces with the best and brightest — hadn’t curbed the epidemic. They told stories of their constituents, like that of a parent whose 29-year-old former athlete son started taking painkillers after a shoulder injury and got so hooked that a dozen times in rehab hasn’t worked.

“It’s something that we worked the hardest on, for, unfortunately, very marginal improvement,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, told attendees at the National Governors Association summer meeting in Providence. “I agree completely that we have to do more and commit ourselves for the long run.”

Rhode Island has been able to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions by 25 percent over the past five years. Still, the state of only 1 million people has seen 1,200 people die of overdoses in that time period.

It was a sobering statistic even for Gov. Brian Sandoval, who’s used to telling people that one Nevadan a day dies of an overdose. The state is three times the size of Rhode Island.

Earlier in his tenure as governor, Sandoval had joined former Vermont Gov. Shumlin to co-chair a yearlong prescription drug abuse “policy academy” for a handful of other states in the association. The academies gathered top-level state leaders to design a strategic plan for reducing opioid abuse, including implementing a prescription drug monitoring program, cracking down on illegal access points such as online pharmacies, and exploring best practices in addiction treatment.

Some of those ideas were included in a 2015 bill that passed the Legislature, such as the prescription drug monitoring database.

“But I personally didn’t think we gained enough ground, so we got more aggressive,” Sandoval said in an interview after the panel.

Another round of fixes emerged in a 2017 bill, including limits on the amount of drugs that can be prescribed.

“All the things they talked about were things we’re doing in Nevada,” he said. “We’re as aggressive as other states in terms of how we’ve attacked this.”

Governors from other states highlighted creative ways they’re trying to address the problem. New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said his state was working with human resources staffers at companies and certifying “recovery friendly workplaces” where people struggling with addiction could ease back into a job and be upfront with their boss about their issue.

Raimondo discussed her state’s initiative to allow methadone treatments to addicts in prison, rather than forcing them to go cold turkey. Forced abstinence can make a former inmate more vulnerable to an overdose when they first get out, proponents say, because it reduces tolerance and increases cravings.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, used it as a chance to push back against ongoing efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Medicaid funds account for a large portion of substance abuse treatment spending.

“We cannot have millions of Americans lose their health coverage and still effectively tackle this crisis. We can’t significantly reduce Medicaid funding and be successful,” he said. “We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think what’s happening with health care in Congress right now affects this.”

Even though some sounded disheartened by the gravity of opioid addiction, they said they were committed to pushing forward in an all-fronts war against it.

“This is one of the biggest crises that has ever hit our country,” independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said. “Meet it head on, be aggressive … treat it like the disaster it is.”

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