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Opioid Crisis Requires State Leadership With a Multidisciplinary Approach

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg Shutterstock

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Connecting state and local government leaders

State and local governments are on the front lines of the opioid crisis, “providing blueprints for federal action along the way,” according to Pennsylvania’s attorney general.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In 2016, more than 4,600 Pennsylvanians suffered fatal overdoses, a 37 percent increase from the year before. This epidemic, which claims the lives of 13 Pennsylvanians every day, is driven by opioids, including prescription pain medications, heroin, and dangerous synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Tragically, this epidemic shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s accelerating: an estimated 650,000 Americans could be lost to fatal overdoses in the next decade if we don’t act.

The opioid crisis is the number one public health and public safety threat facing our nation. As Pennsylvania’s chief law enforcement official, it is my top priority. I am committed to going after the dealers who traffic this poison into our communities: since I took office, we’ve arrested over 3 dealers a day, and we’re working with our partners at the federal, state, and local level to halt the supply of heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids on the street.

But we cannot simply arrest our way out of this crisis. We need a multidisciplinary approach that leverages the work of law enforcement, the medical community, and all levels of government.

My office is on the frontlines of this crisis. In addition to strengthening criminal enforcement, we are advocating for new legislation at the state and federal level, improving data sharing between agencies, and working to reduce the availability of prescription opioids—the root cause of this crisis.

Eighty percent of people who are addicted to heroin start with prescription drugs, and 70 percent of those who misuse prescription drugs get them from friends and relatives, or find them lying around in a medicine cabinet. Disposing of unused pills can help remove a key pathway to addiction.

Last year, in partnership with the District Attorneys and the National Guard here in Pennsylvania, we collected and destroyed 26 tons of unused drugs. This year, we’ve destroyed 29 tons in just the first eight months. Since many Pennsylvanians live far away from disposal locations, my office distributed 300,000 environmentally-safe drug disposal pouches to nearly 400 pharmacies across the Commonwealth. The pouches are free, and will be automatically given to anyone who fills a prescription of 30 days or less for a schedule II narcotic and are available to anyone else who requests one, even without a prescription.

Leaders around the country are implementing solutions that go beyond simply locking people up. As part of NewDEAL’s network of 150 innovative pro-growth progressives working at the state and local levels across the country, I have seen my colleagues undertake smart approaches in tackling the crisis from all angles. In Colorado, state Rep. Brittany Pettersen has passed legislation to increase availability of substance abuse treatment under Medicaid. She was inspired by the story of her mother, who was covered by Medicaid and struggled to get help with addiction.

In Palm Beach County, Florida, State Attorney Dave Aronberg has created a task force to investigate fraudulent “sober homes.” Sober homes are group residences for individuals in recovery. While many are legitimate, there have been many examples of homes that exploit people with substance-use disorder for their insurance and encourage them to relapse rather than recover.

None of us can combat the scourge of heroin and opioids alone. Collaboration between law enforcement agencies, social service agencies, health care providers, and others is critical. Here in Pennsylvania, I’ve collaborated with the FBI, DEA, DOJ, other states’ attorneys general, and dozens of local law enforcement agencies to go after heroin dealers. My office has also collaborated with state agencies like the Department of Health and Department of Insurance, as well as county and city governments, to increase access to information and enhance investigations, and with the Pennsylvania Medical Society and major health insurance companies to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions.

Similarly, Mayor Miro Weinberger of Burlington, Vermont set a framework for addressing the epidemic in his city, including partnerships with law enforcement and health care providers. His initiatives include data collection and analysis by police in Burlington and neighboring towns. Working with public health and social services professionals, police can identify and track individuals who need treatment, housing, and other social services.

Unfortunately, the response to this crisis from Washington so far has been discouraging. The health care repeal bill passed by the House and supported by the president would eliminate access to addiction treatment for 175,000 Pennsylvanians, and millions more Americans. That would have been catastrophic.

President Trump took an important step recently by agreeing publicly that this epidemic is a national emergency. Now he needs to put his words into action and follow up with a formal declaration and decisive action. It’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach to defeat the heroin and opioid epidemic. We need the President to declare a national emergency and Congress to fund key treatment and prevention programs. In the meantime, my fellow public officials and I will keep doing everything we can to slow this crisis, providing blueprints for federal action along the way.

Josh Shapiro is Pennsylvania’s attorney general and a member of the NewDEAL.

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