Communities in Crisis: Officials Gather at Clarion U. to Discuss Pennsylvania’s Opioid Epidemic

| April 13, 2018

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Pennsylvania’s opioid epidemic was in the spotlight Thursday as officials, leaders, and community members gathered to discuss the crisis in a packed room at Clarion University’s Gemmell Complex.

(PHOTO: Senator Gene Yaw. Courtesy Clarion University of Pennsylvania)

Organizers said the aim of the gathering – dubbed “Communities in Crisis – PA Opioid Epidemic” – was to continue to keep people up to date on information regarding heroin and opioids while promoting recovery for those who abuse the often-deadly drugs, identifying opportunities to heal communities, and addressing the stigma of addiction.

Statistics from 2016 show that 4,642 people in Pennsylvania died from drug-related overdoses; the presence of opioids was found in 85 percent of these drug fatalities. The state’s drug overdose rate is 36.5 per 100,000 people, more than double the national average.

A big step forward in bolstering the fight against heroin and opioid addiction occurred on January 10 when Governor Tom Wolf signed a statewide disaster declaration.

The declaration is designed to “enhance state response, increase access to treatment, and save lives,” according to the Wolf administration.

It is the first-of-its-kind declaration for a public health emergency in Pennsylvania and will utilize a command center at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to track progress and enhance coordination of health and public safety agencies.

Just one week after signing the declaration, Wolf sent a letter to President Trump asking him to increase federal support to fight the epidemic.

“Last year, more than 4,600 Pennsylvanians tragically died of a disease. This disease knows no age, gender, race, socio-economic status, or geography. It has spread to small towns, big cities, and rural communities. It has transcended demographics and regions,” Wolf said in the letter.

The letter continued, “This chronic and deadly disease is substance use disorder. Across Pennsylvania, communities are grappling with an epidemic of addiction to heroin and powerful opioids that has out-paced auto accidents in terms of the lives it takes each year.”

Those words were echoed by Senator Gene Yaw (D – 23rd District) during opening remarks at Thursday’s conference.

“Drug addiction is a chronic brain disorder,” said Yaw. “People can become addicted to an opioid in as little as ten days.”

Yaw and other lawmakers are pushing for legislation limiting the amount of opioids that individuals may be prescribed.

Senate Bill 472, sponsored by Yaw, won bipartisan approval in late October and is currently under review by the PA House of Representatives Health Committee.

It addresses the increasing risk of individuals becoming addicted to opioids and heroin after being prescribed painkillers, and it is one of several bills introduced by Yaw aimed at curbing the drug epidemic that has killed, on average, more than 13 people per day in Pennsylvania.

According to Sen. Yaw, the bill would limit the prescription for a controlled substance containing an opioid to a seven-day duration unless there is a medical emergency that puts the individual’s health or safety at risk. The bill also includes exceptions for cases involving acute and chronic pain, cancer treatment, or for palliative care or hospice care. In those cases, the medical professional would be required to document the medical condition in the individual’s record with the prescriber and indicate the reason why a non-opioid alternative is not appropriate to address the acute medical condition.

The bill, as amended by the Senate, also includes exceptions when a patient remains in an inpatient or hospital setting and when a prescriber is continuing a treatment initiated by another member of the prescriber’s practice.

“While we must do everything we can to curb doctor shopping and reduce illicit prescription drug abuse, I want to ensure that we are not unintentionally hindering access to medicines without evidence of abuse for patients who rely on them on a daily basis,” Yaw noted in an earlier release.

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Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Health and Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine, who is well-known for spearheading efforts to establish opioid prescribing guidelines and opioid prescribing education for medical students, attended the conference remotely and spoke to attendees via live video.

“Up to 13 Pennsylvanians die every day due to overdose (according to 2016 statistics), and we’re expecting that number to be higher in 2017,” said Levine. “Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease.”

Levine noted that 6,701 lives were saved with naloxone – a medication designed to reverse an opioid overdose rapidly. The life-saving, yet controversial, drug has been promoted heavily by the Wolf administration which earmarked $5 million in the 2017-2018 state budget allowing the purchase of more than 60,000 naloxone kits over a two-year period.

Naloxone has received mixed reviews from some who believe it provides a safety net for drug users and who question whether taxpayer money should be used to purchase the medication.

A Republican State House spending bill passed last April eliminated $10 million of funding delegated to provide first responders with naloxone. A compromise was later reached, and the budget was passed, including the $5 million for naloxone.

Dr. Levine remains positive and feels progress is being made despite the criticism.

“I think we are going to win this battle and overcome this epidemic,” said Levine. “Working together, we can provide hope to the families, to the communities, and to our Commonwealth.”

Another key player in the fight – Barry Denk, Director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania – spoke about heroin and opioid addiction in rural Pennsylvania.

Center for Rural Pennsylvania facilitated 12 public hearings across the state on the heroin and opioid epidemic, including one that was held in August 2014 at Clarion University.

According to Denk, the hearings created statewide awareness supporting and resulting in numerous legislative and administrative initiatives to combat a disease that now claims more lives each year than those lost to traffic accidents.

Denk noted that between 2015-2016, rural PA counties saw a 42% increase in fatal overdoses compared to a 34% increase in urban counties.

While the statistics are daunting, some experts believe public perception of addiction and opioid is fueling the fire.

“Addiction is a shame-based illness,” said Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug & Alchohol Commission CRS Mike Krafick during an hour-long presentation that focused on the stigma of addiction.

Krafick emphasized the importance of sharing recovery stories in order to decrease stigma and inspire more people to get help.

“Teach people to tell their recovery story in a way that reduces stigma,” said Krafick.

Also speaking at the conference were Dr. Bradley Miller, Williamsport Family Medicine; Alex Jennings, Spirit Life; Joel Jakubowski, PA Adult & Teen Challenge; Kate Baumgardner, Mercy Hospital; Amanda Cope, RN Positive Recovery Solutions; Katie Musgrove, Pyramid Healthcare; and Dr. Grace McGorrian, ARC Manor.

The conference was sponsored by Mu Xi Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Society, Pennsylvania Emergency Nursing Association, and Clarion University Department of Nursing.


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