Opioid Epidemic

Without further action, the opioid epidemic will continue to heavily impact our society and especially our rural communities.  This is a complex, dynamic issue that has stolen too many of our loved ones from us.  Rarely will you encounter someone that hasn’t been affected by this epidemic.  It’s present in all of our communities across Pennsylvania, from small towns to big cities.  It impacts those from all walks of life; it affects our youth, the elderly, our friends and neighbors, and our veterans – everyone.  It demands our attention and must be addressed.  To complicate matters, our rural communities, like the majority of the 9th Congressional District, face added challenges in addressing the opioid epidemic. 

This issue has impacted those close to my family and in my small town.  On the campaign trail, I’ve met and talked with those who have personally struggled with this addiction and conquered it.  I have also spoken with families of loved ones who lost their battle with opioids, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.  In 2016, Pennsylvania had the 4th highest rate of deaths due to overdoses per capita[1], and that’s accurately reflected in the amount of people who approach me with their experiences.

Everyone’s story is unique, but there are common themes that emerge as to how those with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) reach the point they’re at, particularly regarding opioids.  These themes allow us to begin to craft policies that would be most effective in addressing the epidemic.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 21%-29% of people prescribed opioids abuse them, and 8%-12% develop an addiction.  Roughly 80% of heroin users first misused prescription opioids.[2]  Regardless of if someone’s abusing prescription opioids like Oxycotin, synthetic opioids like Fentynl, or recreational drugs like heroin, they – and those who love them -- are fighting the same battle.  Many will transition between different types of opioids without understanding the strength of what they’re using, resulting in overdose.  Fentynl is particularly troubling because of its potency.  In fact, Pennsylvania leads the country in overdose deaths of young men. 

Secondary to the devastation felt in our communities and by our families, the economic impact of this epidemic is significant.  $78.5 billion nationwide in direct expenses related to healthcare, lost productivity, and criminal justice each year.2  A White House report from late 2017 suggested the annual comprehensive cost at a staggering $500 billion.[3]  The federal resources we’re dedicating to fighting this battle -- $4.6 billion -- pales in comparison to the monetary costs we’re incurring – let alone the personal costs. 

Once we understand the problem, we have to focus on solutions:

  • Education and Prevention

We must raise the general public’s awareness of opioid abuse and provide a way to seek out the necessary treatment.  Educating the public on the importance of correctly disposing of unused medications is also a beneficial tool.  Dedicating the time and resources to informing our youth of the dangers of opioids is another important weapon in our arsenal.  It’s more effective to raise awareness and prevent abuse than it is to treat abuse after the fact. 

For healthcare professionals, providing information on alternative pain management strategies is vital to stemming the flow of opioids into our communities.  Also, when it’s necessary to prescribe, providing only a seven-day prescription is also incredibly important.  Working with our hospitals to provide “warm handoffs” to recovery specialists after a medical emergency related to opioids can get those who need treatment the resources necessary to actually receive treatment.

Promoting a universal database that can track prescriptions can prevent and discourage those seeking to shop the same prescription at multiple pharmacies.  Also, additional efforts curb the manufacturing and distributing illicit opioids en masse can help stem the flow of opioids in our communities. 

  • Removing the Stigma

We must understand that substance abuse and dependence is a healthcare issue, not a criminal justice issue.  The stigma commonly attached to opioid abuse prevents those who have a problem from coming forward and seeking treatment.  It also prevents those families that have suffered a loss at the hands of this epidemic from coming forward to tell their story and raise public awareness.  Not receiving treatment leads to health issues down the road, impaired development in our youth, and strains our criminal justice system.  In small rural towns in the 9th Congressional District like where I’m from, everyone knows everyone and this can make coming forward more difficult.

  • Accessibility to Treatment

Treatment begins with the availability of Narcan to revive overdose victims.  Our hospitals, emergency personnel, and law enforcement need to have their Narcan supply replenished as necessary to treat victims in that crucial window when they can be revived from an overdose.  That window is even more narrow in rural areas, because it takes our first responders longer to reach and transport those in need of treatment.  In fact, rural overdose victims are four times more likely to die because of an extended response time.[4]  Making Narcan and over overdose-reversing drugs available for purchase at reasonable prices is another effective way to increase accessibility. 

Increasing the availability of treatment for opioid addiction is another necessary step to addressing this epidemic.  There is a significant “treatment gap” between those needing treatment and those receiving it.  Accessibility is another challenge in rural communities because treatment may be a long distance away, and if the individual has suffered legal ramifications due to their addiction, they likely don’t have a valid driver’s license and public transportation is scarce.  A lack of health insurance is another reason why many do not seek treatment that would overwise.  

To that end, we must also make sure we provide access to services through the full cycle of treatment.  We seem to emphasize the initial treatment but fall even shorter in providing long-term care to keep those in recovery from relapsing.  This includes long-term counseling and transition back into society after the initial treatment.  We need to develop a comprehensive five-year long-term recovery plan.  There are promising statistics for those receiving long-term care for SUD, including opioids:  85% of those who complete five years of treatment are very successful in maintaining their sobriety. 

  • Increase Funding

The federal government, states, and municipalities have begun to provide additional resources to flighting the opioid epidemic.  While this moves the needle in the right direction, it’s not enough, nor is it even close to the financial cost to society of letting the epidemic continue to grow.  To provide all the services necessary to combat opioids, more funding and smart policies will be required.  One more life lost is one too many.  Additionally, there’s an economic case to be made.  A CALDATA study demonstrated economic returns of a 7:1 ratio relative to the investment in addressing substance abuse.[5]

 

I stand ready to find solutions and provide the necessary funding to help families, individuals, and communities with the help they need.  I commit my friendship and alliance with those battling the disease of addiction.