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VOL. 40 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 12, 2016

Physician Briggs targets prescription drug epidemic

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With the 2016 General Assembly at full tilt, state Sen. Richard Briggs – a retired Army colonel and surgeon – is fighting another battle, this time against Tennessee’s prescription drug epidemic.

It’s a problem often overlooked, yet it takes a toll on lives and finances. The state totaled 1,300 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2015, more than the 950 people killed in auto crashes statewide, the Knoxville Republican points out.

Briggs recalls a year ago, as he was preparing for the Legislature after winning the Senate District 7 seat, he was trying to clear up all of his patients.

“I left six patients in the hospital, all of them I had operated on for infected heart valves from (shooting up) drugs. A lot of those people will die,” says the first-term senator.

“They don’t show up in those statistics (for opioid deaths). And, each one of them costs the Tennessee taxpayers between $200,000 and $300,000. Those six people I left could very well have been $1.8 million in taxpayer costs, because they don’t have any insurance.”

Little is changed in a year.

As recently as two weeks ago, Briggs, 63, was on call – his private practice is at St. Mary’s Medical Center and Tennova Regional Medical Center – and had two admissions for people who suffered infected heart valves from shooting up.

Furthermore, he points out, Children’s Hospital in Knoxville handles an inordinate number of children born addicted to narcotics. Briggs calls it “the world’s epicenter” for neonatal abstinence syndrome, cases in which the mother’s drug addiction passes on to the newborn child.

“People from all over the world are coming there to treat it. It’s terrible. It’s sad and it’s terrible,” he adds.

With that foremost in his mind, Briggs backed legislation set to take effect July 1 requiring all pain clinics in Tennessee to be partially owned by a physician and the medical director to be certified in pain medicine.

Another piece of legislation this year, Senate Bill 1466, will require pain clinics to be overseen by the state Department of Health, he says, enabling Board of Medical Examiners to make sure they are operating properly and pull their license if not.

He differentiates between pain clinics run by anesthesiologists certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties and what he refers to as “pill mills,” centers with bogus certifications for prescribing pain medicine.

“They’re nothing but dope clinics, and I believe we’re gonna shut down a lot of them,” he says.

The effort could require a legislative hearing, possibly creation of a task force of medical experts to deal with organizations across Tennessee “claiming legitimacy,” he explains.

Briggs’ medical background likely also affects his view on Insure Tennessee, a 2015 proposal by Gov. Bill Haslam to use Affordable Care Act funding to provide market-based insurance for some 280,000 working Tennesseans caught in a coverage gap.

“I’m a very conservative Republican, but I want to represent all the people in my district. I supported strongly Insure Tennessee because I think it was the right thing to do,” says Briggs, one of only a handful of Republicans who backed the measure as it failed twice last year in Senate committees.

“And I supported many other things that I think put money back into people’s pockets.”

Compassion is a hallmark of Briggs’ career and political service, his peers say.

“Richard’s a really sincere guy. He cares about people. He cares about his district. He wants to learn,” says Republican Sen. Jim Tracy, who chairs the Senate Transportation.

Even though they were on opposite sides of the debate on Insure Tennessee, Tracy and Briggs remain friends and frequently discuss transportation and health-care issues.

Not your average childhood

Briggs was born in Kentucky, but at an early age went to live with a French family in a small village at the foot of the Alps.

His French father was Jean Barral, a man he calls “an intellectual” who was a hero of the French resistance during German occupation and was severely wounded toward the end of World War II.

“He was a fascinating guy,” Briggs says. “He carried the French flag. He was very close to Charles de Gaulle and carried the flag down the Champs Elysees when Paris was liberated.”

Sen. Richard Briggs (R) District 7, Knoxville

Age: 63

Family: Wife, Stephanie

Religion: Methodist

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Transylvania College, M.D. from University of Kentucky

Career: Physician, U.S. Army colonel, retired, former Knox County Commission member

Senate: State and Local Government Committee, Health and Welfare Committee

Briggs keeps a picture of his French Village on the wall of his War Memorial Building office, the highest peaks of the French Alps looming in the background.

When he returned to the United States at age 18, Briggs earned a degree at Transylvania College in Kentucky, then joined the Army, which paid for medical school at the University of Kentucky. A seven-year residency at Fort Sam Houston and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, ensued, followed by a time in Korea, and a long stint in the Army Reserve.

In addition, he worked for three years on the Jarvik artificial heart transplantation project and cardiac surgery with Dr. William DeVries in Louisville, Ky.

In that time, Briggs served in Operation Desert Storm and received the Bronze Star Medal in 1991 for his efforts in averting a suicide bombing in Iraq.

Briggs moved to Knoxville in 1992 where he took on numerous key medical-related positions but also served in Egypt in support of U.S. efforts in Somalia in 1993, and in 1997 he traveled to South America with a group working on drug interdiction.

He says he had no interest in serving politically until Knoxville’s “Black Wednesday” when Knox County commissioners and other elected officials got together, “literally in a smoky room,” Briggs says, and made plans to keep one another in plum positions after the Tennessee Supreme Court vacated eight seats because of new term-limit rules.

Knoxville News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy and nine other people sued the county in Chancery Court for a violation of the Open Meetings Act in January 2007, and the chancellor vacated those positions in September 2007.

“It was one of those things where somebody really had to do something. It was just so bad,” says Briggs, who was in the Leadership Knoxville program at the time and decided to run for office. He and a new group of people won seats in a special election in 2008 as the county commission was reduced to 11 members.

Other political wrongdoing followed, however, and the new county commission took action to stop it, drawing a line in the sand, Briggs says, to let people know the corruption was ending.

For instance, the county’s law director was accused of embezzling money from his firm and wouldn’t resign until he lost his law license.

The county trustee’s office was accused of stealing more than $6 million, and several of them were jailed, he says. Jimmy Duncan, the son of a congressman, also resigned after being convicted of a felony, Briggs adds.

“Just like crookedness can spread, I think insistence on good government can spread too,” he says.

In the Legislature, Briggs acknowledges House Republicans have had trouble already this year dealing with sexual harassment allegations against now former Republican Caucus Whip Jeremy Durham.

But he says he won’t let that affect his standards or how he conducts business.

“I’m absolutely intolerant of malfeasance in office. We need to be above reproach. … If people are going to pay their money in taxes, they have to have people they can trust,” he points out.

Briggs is holding the seat Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett held when he was in the state Senate.

“Dr. Briggs is just an exceptional person, and I’m glad he’s my friend. He is a good man. He’s honest, and you can’t fault his reasons for being down in the Legislature,” Burchett says.

Key issues

Taking a page out of his military background, Briggs says he believes the governor needs the right strategy for raising road construction revenue and reviving Insure Tennessee.

Briggs contends the governor has not said he would increase the gas tax. Haslam did tour the state discussing $6 billion in unfunded road projects, gauging support for fuel-tax reform or an increase in the 20-cent gas tax. But during his recent State of the State address, the governor said he only wants to keep the “conversation” going on fuel taxes.

Asked if feels a fuel-tax increase has a better chance of passing in 2017, Briggs says the issue needs to be brought “to people’s attention.”

In Knox County, for instance, a proposed Alcoa Highway improvement project is slated to cost $217 million, a job the governor touched on during his address.

People need to decide whether they want toll roads, state debt or a change in fuel taxes to pay for the highway projects Tennessee needs, Briggs says.

Briggs doesn’t think the governor should forge ahead with Insure Tennessee this session, either, even though hundreds of Tennesseans rallied in favor of the plan on opening day at the Capitol.

Briggs says the governor needs to choose the right time and place and build support for Insure Tennessee before reviving it.

“I’m not one of these people that says if you don’t get your way you fall on your sword and kill yourself. I think the British did the right thing evacuating Dunkirk,” he says. “They lost the battle but they won the war.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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