Heroin and Opioid Crisis to Be Focus of Tele-Town Hall and Part of Legislative Efforts

By State Senator Michele Brooks

As most families greet the holidays with anticipation and excitement, some will be mourning an empty chair in the kitchen and an empty space under the Christmas tree.

Heroin and opioid overdoses are claiming the lives of 10 Pennsylvanians a day, on average, taking the lives of people of all ages, but especially, the young –from all socioeconomic strata –and leaving behind heartache.

Shocking videos of young mothers, teenage couples, and even grandparents overdosing on heroin have brought today’s drug epidemic into haunting focus.  Every day it seems, a young life is pictured in the obituaries, lost suddenly to drug addiction.

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has acted quickly to attack this high-stakes danger, but time is of the essence, and our work is far from over.

To keep the conversation going and progress advancing, I am pleased to say that Senator Gene Yaw, Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, as well as several experts on this topic, will hold a Tele-Town Hall meeting on the opioid epidemic for our region in March.  This conversation will be part of a series of tele-town halls that are being held throughout the state.  Understanding that everyone has different schedules, this format will give residents in the 50th Senatorial District the opportunity to participate from the comfort of their own home.  Callers are welcome to stay on the line for as long as they are able, whether that is for the entire time, or for only a few minutes.

Since there is no cookie-cutter approach to solving this problem, the exchange of ideas and the resultant dialogue between the panel experts and listeners is designed to help tailor sensitive, compassionate solutions to the lives most affected.

Closer to the event, details on the tele-town hall will appear on my website, at www.senatorbrooks.com, as well as in the newspaper and other media outlets.

The goal of these exchanges throughout the state is to reverse a trend that saw nearly 3,500 drug-related overdose deaths in the Keystone State in 2015, an incredible increase of more than 238 percent over 2014. In approximately four out of five of those deaths, the presence of heroin or at least one opioid was reported.  Many of these addictions began, not on an inner-city street corner, but in someone’s own medicine cabinet.  These prescriptions include Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin.

With this being said, it is important that we also protect citizens’ privacy and ensure that people in need of legitimate prescriptions –even over-the-counter cold medications—can obtain them without a Big Brother-like intrusion.

It is a delicate balancing act that we must strike.

To try to turn the tide on drug addiction, these bills were signed into law recently:

  • Limits prescriptions for minors to seven days, unless a medical emergency puts the child’s health or safety at risk.  The bill includes exceptions for cases involving chronic pain, cancer treatment or hospice care.
  • Requires prescribers and dispensers to receive initial and continuing education in pain management, addiction recognition, and effective opioid use.  They will also be required to check the newly created Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Database (PDMP) each time a patient is given an opioid or benzodiazepine, and to update the database within a 24-hour period, instead of the current 72 hours.
  • Calls for a medical training facility to implement an opioid-related curriculum focusing on chronic pain management that minimizes the use of opioids; instruction on safe methods of prescribing controlled substances; identification of patients who are at-risk for opioid addiction; and teaching medical students how to manage substance abuse disorders as a chronic disease.
  • Creates the Safe Emergency Prescribing Act to limit the quantity of opioids which may be prescribed to a patient seeking treatment in a hospital emergency department or urgent care center, to curb “doctor-shopping.”

I also wanted to point out a very valuable program where people have the opportunity to drop-off unused prescriptions free of charge throughout the 50th district.

In Crawford County, these sites include:

  • Cambridge Springs Police Dept.
  • Conneaut Lake Regional Police Dept.
  • Linesville Borough Police Dept.
  • Crawford Co. Sheriff’s Dept.
  • Meadville Medical Center
  • West Mead Twp. Police Dept.
  • Titusville Police Dept.

And in Mercer County:

  • Greenville-West Salem Police Dept.
  • Borough of Grove City Police Dept.
  • City of Hermitage Police Dept.
  • Mercer County Sheriff’s Office.

A complete list of take-back boxes across the state can be found at  https://apps.ddap.pa.gov/gethelpnow/PillDrop.aspx. More than two tons of unwanted drugs have been collected for disposal in Pennsylvania since the program started in late 2014.

I have also supported new laws to provide legal protection for witnesses or Good Samaritans providing medical help at the scene of an overdose, and to allow naloxone, a synthetic drug that blocks opiate receptors in the nervous system (often known by the brand name Narcan) to be prescribed to a third party, such as a friend or family member, and administered by law enforcement and firefighters.

Many municipal police departments and other law enforcement officials now carry Narcan to reverse overdoses.  Since November, 2014, state and local police officers have reversed nearly 1,800 overdoses with Narcan, literally bringing someone back to life.  The Physician General has also signed a standing order for Narcan at every pharmacy.

But reversing an overdose is far from reversing the addiction. Treatment must follow.  To get help now, 1-800-662-4357 (HELP), is a new, 24/7 toll-free hotline to call for help with opioid treatment. The hotline is available at all hours and features real people, not an answering machine, to provide information specific to an individual’s needs.

These measures are all pieces to a larger puzzle.  I know as a community we can pull together and take a page from days gone by, when folks would call a parent when they saw something out of the ordinary.  Identifying the problem is the first step.  While drug addiction is preventable, it will take a continuing and coordinated effort across all spectrums to address it.

For many suffering families, a welcome holiday blessing would be a loved one who has overcome this terrible addiction and found a brighter, richer, drug-free life.