Throughout Pennsylvania, the opioid crisis has hit families and communities hard, and our community is no exception. Although we have taken some steps to address this crisis, we must do way more.
Pennsylvania is in the middle of an unprecedented opioid abuse crisis. The latest comprehensive statistics from 2016 indicate a 37% increase in overdoses statewide over 2015 and the early numbers from 2017 show no sign of slowing down. This problem cuts across the Commonwealth, from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to rural counties, and into suburban communities as well - some of the largest increases in opioid deaths have come in places like Chester County (54% increase) and Montgomery County (51% increase). This is a complex problem and the best plan involves multiple approaches.
An epidemic like the opioid crisis that has complex causes requires complex approaches - there is no one solution to this problem, but there are lessons from the past we must learn. Although the Commonwealth has taken strides to address the abuse and over-prescription of narcotic pain medication (which many institutions including academic researchers and government agencies like the DEA agree is the main source of the epidemic) there is much to be done.
Gov. Wolf has taken action to ensure access to important medical treatments for overdoses. However, counties and local municipalities are often left out to dry when it comes to dealing with the causes of the crisis. Community health officials, emergency services, and government officials are in triage-mode. They can't get ahead of the increasing pace of problems they face while buried by the daily realities of the 13+ overdoses a day, and rampant drug abuse in their communities. It's time for Pennsylvania lawmakers step up and provide support for the hardest-hit communities, and increase prevention initiatives in those areas where the crisis is brewing.
Furthermore, at a state level we need to adopt best practice protocols and programs that benefit from the lessons of past drug-crisis failures. We cannot return to simply arresting every drug user - a shortsighted, ineffective, and deeply destructive practice. Communities often never recover from massive enforcement crackdowns, and Pennsylvania's taxpayers simply cannot afford to incarcerate tens of thousands of drug users, only to see them on welfare and unemployment when they are eventually released.
Instead, Pennsylvania has an opportunity to lead the way on implementing incentives for local care that follows nationally recognized best practices. By taking a balanced public-health centered approach, we can refocus our spending on proven practices that limit long term damage to communities, get victims and addicts back on their feet and back into the productive economy.
Currently, there is a lot of national conversation among researchers, public health professionals, government agencies, and nonprofits about what the best practices are for the opioid crisis, and we need to listen. Burying our head in the sand, or shouting "tough on crime, lock them up" won't save us and our communities. It might seem effective to focus on taking out criminals supplying drugs to our communities, but it won't address the total problem of the skyrocketing demand.
We need to make sure people of every income-level and background have access to effective treatment, and personal and vocational support after they get clean. Researchers agree, that managing environmental pressures are the best predictors of success. Getting a user clean requires not just rehab, but ensuring ongoing support for families, healthcare, employment, and housing.
No matter how we face this crisis, it won't be cheap, lets make sure we are spending every penny of our money using the best possible tools. We can either invest in solutions right now, or pay for the ongoing consequences.