PA heroin overdoses increased in 2015; new legislation addresses epidemic

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY / Bucks County experienced an overall 4 percent rise in drug-related overdose deaths last year.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY / Bucks County experienced an overall 4 percent rise in drug-related overdose deaths last year.

For many, a new report released by the Drug Enforcement Agency didn’t offer revelatory information as much as it shed more light on a problem many people already recognize. The report also arrived with help from Washington on fighting it.

Released last week, the Analysis of Drug-Related Overdose Deaths in Pennsylvania confirmed that drug-related fatalities where heroin or opioids played a role increased in Pennsylvania and especially Bucks County. There were 3,383 deaths in Pennsylvania last year — 641 more, or a 23.4-percent increase, from 2014. Heroin or opioids played a role in 81 percent of them.

According to the report, the most significant increases in heroin presence were in rural or suburban areas. Bucks County experienced a 4-percent increase with 18.65 deaths per 100,000 people. This moved it from the 35th to the 29th county in the state. The majority of those who died from overdoses were white males, most between 30 and 39 years old.

“This mirrors what we’re seeing in Bucks County,” said Diane Rosati, executive director of the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission. The Commission’s data comes from people treated in the county while the DEA draws from coroners’ reports. The results, she stressed, are still the same.

“This is the fifth year heroin has surpassed alcohol as the drug most treated for,” said Rosati.

The Drug and Alcohol Commission continues to fight what’s recognized nationally as an epidemic in part by encouraging people to dispose of unused or expired prescription drugs for free at any of the county’s 38 designated drop-off spots.

“That is where most people begin to abuse prescription medication, and then it’s a slippery slope to heroin,” said Rosati.

The group is also launching an awareness campaign for PA STOP, which offers information on addiction and a database of treatment centers across the state.

In Washington, the Care And Recovery Act of 2016, or CARA, was approved by the Senate and sent to the White House on Thursday.

CARA, according to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) in a news conference last week, “is not a silver bullet, but it’s going to help.”

While it does not authorize funding, it expands opioid prevention and treatment programs and provides more tools for law enforcement agencies.

A second appropriations bill, the Labor Health and Human Services Appropriation Act, is currently making its way through Congress. The bill calls for “huge increases in funding that fall under the spending caps mutually agreed to” by Democrats and Republicans, according to Toomey.

“I think we do need to commit additional funds to this cause, but it should come out of the general funding … and it should not be just additional deficit spending that we borrow from China,” he said.

Toomey also highlighted his own Stop Medication Abuse and Protecting Seniors Act, which was included in CARA. This act addresses “doctor shopping” by Medicare beneficiaries. It blocks Medicare beneficiaries who are going to multiple doctors and pharmacies and filling opioid prescriptions by locking them into a single provider and pharmacy.

According to the Government Accountability Office, said Toomey, some 170,000 Medicare beneficiaries were identified to be doctor shopping. His act would prevent people from feeding their own addiction or contributing to others, while also saving taxpayer money.

“Since Medicare is reimbursing their cost, the taxpayers are paying for the fraud,” he said.

As of Friday, CARA has yet to be scheduled for President Obama to sign, but a Toomey spokesperson said the president “has indicated he will sign it.”

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