“One of the things that made it easier,” Gee continued, “was that the hardest hit parts of Louisiana with opioid overdose deaths tended to be the most conservative. And so, it became easier to talk to legislators, policymakers, and local leaders there because they might have had a cousin, a brother, or sister who had been involved in an addiction journey and needed help. And so I think changing hearts and minds was easier. But it was important to talk about it as a disease and really deal with stigma reduction.”
“We got creative about how we framed the need for change,” Gee said. “For instance, my team felt it was important to allow needle exchange so we could reduce the risk of transmission of infectious viruses for individuals who were using drugs with a needle. We were able to get a law passed because we went to the Sheriffs’ Association, a very conservative group, and said, ‘Look, the folks who are working with you may be in a situation where they might be exposed to a needle and might get infected. Isn’t it in all of our best interests that our first responders, as well as individuals in society, have less of this disease?’ Then, we had a sheriff introduce the bill and it was passed.”
Gee also pointed out that two other elements of her Department’s ‘secret sauce’ were data gathering and effective storytelling.
“Ironically, it is somewhat unusual for policymakers to focus on a data-driven approach to problem solving,” said Gee. “It really matters to have data first and then change later. You need to first get answers for where is the problem? Where do we focus on solving it? Are we getting better or are we getting worse? Where are the deaths? What kinds of drugs are being used? What are the prescribing patterns? If we don’t know where we are, we can’t improve it. In Medicaid expansion, for instance, we showed that it wasn’t just about getting a Medicaid card, because we were able to show the numbers of people being treated for addiction disorder who needed the coverage. We created the Louisiana Opioid Data and Surveillance System (LODDS) that provided the data we were able to use for grant funding, policymakers, advocates, and clinicians practicing across the state.”
“Another very effective tool was storytelling,” said Gee. “We told stories of those who benefited from the Medicaid expansion so that they were real. They were musicians, they were waiters in the restaurant you might have gone to. They had breast cancer. I think bringing in storytelling is really important in terms of changing hearts and minds.”