U.S. Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) is planning an opioid summit May 1 in the 6th Congressional District as a way to bring together experts in the field and find common ground on how to combat the crisis affecting the entire country.

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) spoke to members of the Brookhaven Rotary Club on April 4 at the Capital City Club. (Dyana Bagby)

Handel announced the plans for the summit during the April 4 Brookhaven Rotary Club lunch meeting held at the Capital City Club.

“We all need to get on the same page about what is the opioid epidemic in the Sixth District and in Georgia,” Handel said. The district includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.

The summit, to be held possibly in Alpharetta or Sandy Springs, is expected to help identify resources available to fight the epidemic through law enforcement, treatment and prevention and to also reveal gaps in resources that need to be filled.

“We need to try to make sure the dollars at the federal and state level … are being leveraged in the best way,” Handel said. “Time is of the essence, for young people and for the families who are seeing the devastating impacts from opioids.”

In an interview, Handel said the summit would also likely be broken up over two days, the May 1 session and then another day in June.

“We as a community need to come together to understand what the opioid epidemic means … to have a common understanding,” she said.

She noted The Zone in Cobb County, a recovery community organization, has produced promising outcomes and also said Recovery Kentucky has done good work helping people recover from substance abuse and could be used as possible models. She also said working with state Attorney General Chris Carr is crucial as well in overcoming the epidemic.

Handel said plans are also to have a panel of teens speak about the issue as well. “We need to hear from their perspective,” she said.

Reporter Newspapers launched last month a special four-part series, “Coping with a Crisis: Opioid addiction in the suburbs,” about local responses to an epidemic that is killing people nationwide and our communities.

Opioids are a class of addictive, often easily lethal drugs that include opium and morphine as well as substances with similar effects. Many opioids have legitimate medical uses for painkilling, but also can produce physical addiction and a sense of euphoria that attracts recreational drug users. National controversy has raged over opioids available as prescription pills, such as oxycodone, while illegal varieties such as heroin and fentanyl now kill the most people through overdoses.

In Georgia from June of 2016 to May of 2017, the total number of opioid doses prescribed to Georgia patients surpassed 541 million, according to the state attorney general’s office. That totals approximately 54 doses for every person, including children, in Georgia. Georgia is also among the top 11 states with the most opioid overdose deaths, and 55 Georgia counties have an overdose rate higher than the national average, according to the attorney general.

A member of the Brookhaven Rotary asked Handel at the April 4 meeting what was being done about large pharmaceutical companies “pill dumping” in small communities. The Energy and Commerce Committee is currently investigating four major pharmaceutical companies, Handel said, including McKessen, based in San Francisco and with an office in Atlanta.

Committees were also created to address the many pieces of legislation addressing opioids to determine ways to prioritize ways to combat the crisis so “we can start getting some sanity into what we’re going to do,” she said.

Other topics discussed at the Brookhaven Rotary:

Tax bill

Handel praised the sweeping tax-cut bill passed in December, saying companies such as Halyard Health Companies in Alpharetta decided to bring back $40 million in investments it had overseas back into the U.S. due to the corporate tax cuts. The company works in alternative forms of pain management which will be crucial in stopping the opioid epidemic, Handel said.

The bill permanently cut permanent tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent and also cut tax rates for individuals. The tax breaks for individuals are not permanent, but Handel said “in all likelihood” a second phase of the tax bill will include a provision for permanent lower individual rates as well.

Handel said a family of four living in the 6th District has a median income of $132,000 a year. The tax cuts will give them a $4,500 tax reduction, she said.

“This means more money in people’s paychecks,” she said. “We get calls every day from people saying they are seeing more money in their paychecks.”

Omnibus bill

Handel said she was not happy with the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill passed March 23, but voted for it because it funded the military “for the first time in years.” The 2,200-page bill also included $48 million to address the opioid crisis to be used for law enforcement as well as prevention and treatment.

Handel said the entire process of passing the bill was bad policy and she supports Speaker Paul Ryan’s call for a balanced budget amendment. She said she also supports a two-year budget cycle.

Midterm election

Handel has no primary opposition, apparently the first time she has run for office without a primary opponent. Someone asked if Democrat Jon Ossoff was running for the seat again after the special election  between the two last year made international headlines. Handel said she was surprised he was not.

“I thought maybe he would because there was a $40 million investment in him and what’s another couple million,” she said, citing the record amount of money spent in the race.

Democrats Bobby Kaple, Kevin Abel, Steven Knight Griffin and Lucy McBath qualified to run in the May 22 primary.

She acknowledged midterm elections are hard for the party that controls the White House, but she was “cautiously optimistic” Republicans would remain in control. She pointed to President Bill Clinton’s ability to hold on to his majority in 1998 even after impeachment charges were brought against him following a sexual harassment lawsuit by Paula Jones.

“It was because of the economy,” she said of Clinton’s ability to keep control. The strength of the economy, she said, will be the messaging Republicans use in their campaigns up to the midterms.

White House distractions

When asked about the rapid turnover in the White House and especially among Cabinet members, Handel said this was nothing new in Washington, D.C.

“It’s really not that unusual. That’s what’s fascinating to me,” she said. The average length of stay for a senior White House staffer is 14 to 16 months, even at the Cabinet level, she added.

“Did anybody think [Rex] Tillerson [former Secretary of State] was really going to spend the rest of his career, for the next four or eight years, in that role? I don’t think so,” she said.

What is unusual and something she disagrees with is someone finding out they lost their job through Twitter.

“I try to be focused on what needs to get done and not get too caught up in all that,” she said.

Handel went on to say that a lot of what people see on TV, whether Fox News, CNBC, CNN or “what certainly flows out of Facebook” is not accurate or leaves out key pieces of information. “There’s just so much in the press that is really, really broken,” she said.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.