By Briana Vannozzi
These days, it’s not too hard to fill a room full of people when you tell them there’s an event to discuss opioid addiction. That’s because there are fewer and fewer lives that haven’t been touched by the epidemic.
“We’re not going to solve this problem in isolation and we know that everyone together is the only way we’re going to be able to work toward solutions that could be very effective in our state,” said Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey Executive Director Angelo Valente.
Seventy-eight Americans die daily due to opiate overdoses and 1,200 in the state last year alone. Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey sponsored the event, held at Monmouth University. They brought in physicians, prescribers and policy makers to look at this from three different perspectives — where we’ve been, how we got here and where we need to be.
“By the early 2000s it was clear that prescribing of painkillers had taken off at a level that was much greater than could be clinically needed and we were seeing rises in the rates of addiction and overdose deaths. Had we done the right things back then, the epidemic never would have gotten as bad as it did,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing and chief medical officer of the Phoenix House Foundation.
Dr. Kolodny explains that for the first time, the federal government is approaching prescribing methods differently. Changing the focus from how opioids help the chronically ill to how much, if any, should be used at all.
“It was framed as if all of the harms were limited to so-called drug abusers and that millions of patients were being helped, and that’s not true at all. Over the past 15 years, millions of patients with pain have become addicted to opioids,” he said.
And that’s made it tough for legislators to draft policy. State Sen. Joe Vitale sponsored a 21-bill package targeting prescription drug and heroin abuse, but some of it has faced an uphill battle in the medical community.
“Requiring providers to notify and have a discussion with their patients, whether they’re minors or adults, on the dangers and the benefits of prescription painkillers,” Vitale said.
“You really have to address this issue comprehensively and where we’re seeing success is where the medical community, policy makers and others are coming together to address the prescribing but also addressing the addiction issues,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Director of the Division of Science Policy Christopher Jones.
Though there’s no direct evidence linking the two, family services specialists say the number of kids in foster care spiked just as the heroin epidemic did.
“The mere fact that abuse and neglect is 60 percent and now substance abuse is primarily 40 percent, that is a substantial change within the state of New Jersey as well as nationally, and it’s going to become and continue to be an issue from a national perspective,” said Cathy Duryea, vice president of out of home care for Children’s Aid and Family Services.
This series of forums will continue to roll out across the state throughout this year. Experts say there is no single best approach to tackling this epidemic, but it should be looked at in three parts — prevention, correcting over prescribing and treating underlying addictions.