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Lawmakers fighting to treat substance abuse; extend access to education

Sharon Hayes addresses her question about the Tennessee: Connect program to legislators. (Thomas Gray/WCYB)

Education and the opioid epidemic were big topics Friday as Tennessee lawmakers had a breakfast in Kingsport with business leaders and local residents.

Sharon Hayes is the mother of college student. She told lawmakers she is worried about the cost of college.

"My son dropped out when he was 18,” Hayes said. “Three years later, he decided he was wrong, and he wanted to go back to college."

Hayes said she and her husband have been able to pay for her son’s schooling, but she worries others who may not have as much money will be left out. Some dependent students between ages 19 and 23 are ineligible for the state's free college programs.

"There's a gap that these young people who drop out, if they can't afford to go back until they're 24, they're out of luck," Hayes said.

Representative David Hawk said making college accessible is a gradual process, but he plans to keep pushing to narrow the gap.

"Hopefully in the days to come, we'll be able to address that segment of the population to see if we can capture them and get the scholarship available for them as well," Hawk said.

The opioid addiction problem topped concerns at the Chambers of Commerce event. Senator Jon Lundberg advocated creating special schools for children with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: born addicted to drugs.

"For years, we've talked about NAS babies, born addicted to opioids,” Lundberg said. “They're not just babies now. They are schoolchildren."

Hawke also said he will support legislation Governor Bill Haslam is pushing to begin an intensive drug treatment program at West Tennessee State Penitentiary.

"It's going to be a 12 to 18 month program,” Hawk said. “With the opportunity, should someone complete that, to get a reduced sentence of 60 days off of their sentence."

While the proposed new drug treatment program would be located north of Memphis, prisoners across the state would be eligible to participate.

The Tennessee legislature has been in session for two weeks at the time of publication.

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