For many Lancaster County families, the addiction crisis hits far too close to home.
Just six years ago, our county saw an average of 4 or 5 overdose deaths per month. In 2016, the rate increased to more than two deaths per week. By 2017, that rate had skyrocketed to an average of nearly one victim every other day.
The catastrophic toll of this crisis includes 538 reported overdose deaths in the county in the past five years alone.
Behind each of these statistics is a heart-wrenching story: a grandparent left to raise an orphaned child, a mother or father who has lost a son or daughter, a classmate who says goodbye to their best friend. The ripples of these tragedies extend to hundreds of community residents who are suddenly left to deal with the lifelong suffering and heartbreak caused by addiction.
The misuse of opioids is the main culprit behind the overwhelming majority of these untimely deaths.
For many victims, addiction did not begin in dark alleys or drug dens; instead, it started in the relative safety of a doctor’s office, with a legal prescription that was misused, beginning a downward spiral into chemical dependence and criminal activity.
One of the best ways to protect against the use of opioids – and stop addiction before it starts – is by requiring clear guidelines for patients and prescribers.
To that end, I introduced Senate Bill 572 earlier this year to create opioid patient treatment agreements.
My bill would require new patients who need a prescribed opioid regimen to enter into treatment agreements with a prescriber to ensure that they understand how to use these legal drugs safely and in a manner that minimizes the risk of falling victim to addiction.
This includes information about the risks of addiction, the dangers of overdoses, non-opioid treatment alternatives, and a clear understanding of the patient’s role and responsibilities in their treatment.
Drug testing provisions would also be included to help prescribers identify prior drug use and verify that patients are sticking to the prescribed treatment and not diverting medications to the illegal drug market.
Exceptions are provided in some cases, such as medical emergencies, existing doctor-patient relationships, and patients battling cancer or terminal illness. Instead of placing new roadblocks to existing pain management plans, the bill specifically focuses on the situations that are most likely to result in addiction.
Although the legislation is far from being a “silver bullet” to solve the addiction crisis, it is still a vital piece of the puzzle to prevent more needless deaths in our communities.
Senate Bill 572 was part of a bipartisan package of reforms approved by the Senate in June.
Also included in this package are bills to improve prescription drug monitoring, limit opioid prescriptions, target drug dealers, and take additional steps to limit the damage inflicted by the addiction crisis in Pennsylvania communities.
Taken together, these bills represent another strong step forward in the battle against addiction. But they are only one part of a much larger and more complex picture.
Thankfully, we are not alone in this fight.
Our region is fortunate to have a number of dedicated, knowledgeable and qualified treatment providers who are on the front lines of helping people defeat their demons, once and for all.
Passionate advocates are working tirelessly to help eliminate the stigma associated with addiction to encourage more people to seek treatment.
Lancaster County has become a national leader in prosecuting criminals who profit from the misery of others, and cases involving addiction are being diverted to special courts to help more patients get the treatments they so desperately need.
The entire health care community is rallying around the cause and exploring new ways to identify and treat individuals who are at the greatest risk of suffering an overdose.
Our first responders remain vigilant, equipped with the proper training, equipment and overdose reversal medications to save lives.
Each of these developments is important in their own right, but taken together, they represent a powerful force for good against the evils of drug abuse and addiction.
This crisis did not develop overnight. Its creation was spurred by a perfect storm of easy availability, misinformation, and criminal enterprise in order to reach the horrible toll we see today.
Only through the cooperation of all stakeholders – prescribers, patients, treatment professionals, law enforcement, first responders, advocates, elected officials, and the court system – can we reverse these trends and rescue more of our families, friends and neighbors from the clutches of addiction.
It is up to all of us to work together to reverse the tide of overdose deaths, and prevent even greater numbers of community residents from being lost to this terrible epidemic.