State Mental Health Agency Head Claims Law Threatening Jail for Drug-Abusing Moms is Working

Last spring the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation that would make it a jailable offense for drug-addicted women to give birth to babies exhibiting signs of drug-dependence.

The measure’s opponents at the time warned that unintended consequences would result — among them, that the law would either lead to more mothers being incarcerated or more women with addiction problems not seeking prenatal care because of a fear of jail-time.

But Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Douglas Varney testified this week during a budget hearing that the predictions offered by “naysayers” of the new legislation haven’t been borne out.

Most importantly, he said, the law has provided a necessary wake-up call to pregnant substance-abusers.  “For some of the women, it’s really got their attention,” Varney said.

He said the state has given drug-addicted pregnant women a “real shot to change their lives” by prioritizing their access to treatment options. Varney said he wishes there were more resources for treatment, but added that any actions a pregnant woman takes in regard to getting off drugs “is pretty much an absolute defense” against prosecution.

“What we really want them to do is get engaged in recovery and change their life so that that baby doesn’t grow up in a home with addicted parents,” Varney said.

According to a recent press release from the department, 817 children were born suffering from NAS between Janurary and October of this year, up from 731 for the same period in 2013.

Haslam administration officials are claiming that overall the availability of abusable prescriptions drugs has actually been declining in Tennessee lately.

Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner told Haslam Monday that doctors in the state are paying more attention to who they’re prescribing controlled substances to, as well as a reconsideration of the methods of chronic pain treatment.

Dreyzehner also noted that they’ve recently seen “for the first time a reduction in the milligrams of morphine equivalents of opioids” on the controlled substances monitoring database by 3.3 percent. “The amounts of prescriptions were going up about 10 percent a year prior to the beginning of your administration,” Dreyzehner told the governor.

While the reduction might seem small “it actually represents many millions of morphine equivalents,” Dreyzehner said.

Dreyzehner told Haslam he believes some of the reasons for the downward trend are the state’s Prescription Safety Act of 2012, an update of the state’s chronic pain treatment guidelines and an increased awareness to doctor-shopping in the prescribing community.

“We know from a survey we just did of the clinicians — both the prescribers and dispensers that are using the database — that they are using it regularly, and it’s changing their practices, and they believe it is helping them identify people who are at risk for provider shopping,” Dreyzehner said.

Likewise, Varney praised the work being done through the Prescription for Success program, a “comprehensive and multi-year” approach to addressing prescription drug abuse. A press release from TDMHSAS earlier this year claimed prescription drugs have replaced alcohol as the state’s top substance that Tennesseans abuse.