Indiana, PA - Indiana County

AS I SEE IT: State climbs to No. 7 in drug deaths

by DEB BECK on June 29, 2014 1:39 AM

Pennsylvania is moving into a leadership position. In fact, Pennsylvania is now in the top 10 in the nation. Just last week we learned from the newspapers that Pennsylvania moved from 14th to seventh place in drug overdose deaths.

According to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 2,000 Pennsylvanians — 2,000 of our neighbors, friends and family members — lost their lives to fatal drug poisonings in 2011. (A 20 percent increase over 2010.)

Today, more than 2,000 families from around the state are grieving the death of a loved one. They are grieving over 2,000 entirely preventable deaths.

It is time for Pennsylvania to summon the political will to stop the needless dying and the suffering of our families.

This isn’t rocket science. There are obvious steps that Pennsylvania can take immediately to address the epidemic of fatal drug overdoses.

1. Let’s finally enact the prescription drug monitoring legislation that has been mired in politics between the House and Senate for more than three years. The pending legislation will establish a confidential database of addictive medications. This legislation, already in place in 48 states, will improve physician prescribing practices of addictive medication, reduce doctor shopping and diversion and provide training for health care professionals in prevention and in referral to addiction treatment where a problem is identified.

2. Let’s pass Narcan legislation so police, firefighters and other first responders as well as families can save people from dying from prescription and street opiates. Narcan is a fast-acting, nonaddictive drug administered as a nasal spray or injection that stops overdoses in progress. This life-saving measure is also mired in politics in Harrisburg. Oddly, one of the issues delaying enactment is debate over whether families and friends should have access to this treatment that could save the life of a member of the family. Why would we deprive families of this remedy?

3. Let’s restore the $11.5 million in funding cuts to counties for addiction treatment. Funding for treatment of drug and alcohol addiction through the Behavioral Services Initiative (BHSI) and Act 152 line items has been reduced by $11.5 million since fiscal year 2008-09, a 22 percent reduction. At the same time, the prescription drug and heroin problem in Pennsylvania has reached epidemic levels with hundreds of emergency room admissions, overdoses and overdose deaths reported from across the commonwealth.

4. Let’s enact an Emergency Addiction Treatment Fund for long-term treatment for people addicted to prescription and street opiates. The drug companies that manufacture and make billions on the sale of these drugs should be required to contribute to this fund. After all, their product has caused many unnecessary fatalities and is now driving the street opiate problem as well.

5. Let’s aggressively enforce the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act to ensure that people in need of alcohol and other drug addiction treatment are able to obtain help. This federal law was enacted in 2008 and is intended to ensure that drug and alcohol and mental health problems are treated in a nondiscriminatory fashion in health insurance plans. Initial enforcement of the act is a state responsibility.

6. Let’s enact Medicaid expansion for the 500,000 Pennsylvanians who have no health insurance and are not eligible for Medicaid health care coverage. Some of the populations that will be able to obtain health care coverage through Medicaid expansion are low-income wage earners employed in the food service, hospitality and landscaping industries, including cooks, waiters, housekeeping staff and others. Medicaid expansion will also provide health care coverage for 49 percent of Pennsylvania’s uninsured veterans or about 23,000 individuals.

Continuing our progression toward the No. 1 position in fatal drug poisonings in the country is simply unacceptable. The 2,000 Pennsylvanians we lost in 2011 include the student living next door, the mother addicted to opiates following knee surgery, senior citizens making mistakes with medication and others.

No family is immune. Any of our families could be next. Let’s get the job done. This isn’t rocket science.

Deb Beck is president of the Drug & Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania, a statewide coalition of programs, families and individuals involved in drug and alcohol abuse prevention, education and addiction treatment.

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