Op-Ed: Pennsylvania’s Growing Heroin & Opioid Epidemic Demands Action

By Sen. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Sen. Gene Yaw

Over the past five years, nearly 3,000 heroin-related overdose deaths have been identified in Pennsylvania. Overdose deaths in our state have increased by an astounding 570 percent, rising from 2.7 to 15.4 per thousand over the last two decades.

Nationally, more people aged 25 to 64 are dying from heroin overdoses than in vehicle crashes.

This epidemic affects individuals of every age, gender, race, and background. The increased use of heroin, which often has roots in the abuse of prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin, has catapulted Pennsylvania to seventh in the nation for drug-related overdose deaths in the latest federal statistics.

This long trail of human devastation has no respect for geographic boundaries. The districts we represent include some of Pennsylvania’s most urban and most rural communities – and everything in between. They have all seen the effects of heroin addiction far too often.

We cannot continue to sit by as the tally of needless deaths increases. While any solution to this deadly epidemic will have many parts, state laws can be immediately strengthened to deal with some of the most significant causes.

In recent weeks, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan legislative research agency, began a series of statewide hearings to identify more effective approaches in education, prevention, treatment, monitoring, and enforcement for heroin and opioid abuse and addiction. These hearings brought together key leaders in the fight against drug abuse, including law enforcement officials, medical and health care providers and – most importantly – family members who have lost loved ones.

The first two hearings, held in Williamsport and Reading, highlighted a number of legislative solutions to address this epidemic. Three policies consistently supported by those testifying are providing Good Samaritan immunity to those who help overdose victims, legalizing the FDA-approved drug Naloxone, and improving the statewide prescription drug database.

Providing immunity from prosecution for individuals for certain drug crimes when assisting the victim of a drug overdose is the goal of Senate Bill 1164, passed unanimously by the Senate last December. This bill, known as a Good Samaritan Law, would encourage those who are with someone experiencing a potential drug overdose to seek medical help to prevent serious injury or death. There are documented cases where such actions were not taken due to fear of arrest.

In June, the House of Representatives, with the leadership of Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, approved an important amendment to Senate Bill 1164, adding provisions to provide Naloxone – a drug which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose – to all first responders, as well as family members of persons at risk of an overdose. Pennsylvania is one of only two states that does not allow all first responders to carry this life-saving antidote.

This legislation has widespread support, including that of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, the District Attorneys Association and the ACLU.

Pennsylvania’s existing prescription drug monitoring program would be strengthened by expanding the types of drugs monitored and increasing access for doctors and licensed pharmacists under a separate bill also approved by the Senate, Senate Bill 1180. A similar House Bill is working its way through the General Assembly.

Most other states already provide this crucial tool to physicians who prescribe opioids – and those states are seeing the benefit in the form of lives saved. Because an estimated 80 percent of heroin users started with prescription drug abuse, the importance of improving our database is undeniable.

The need to act swiftly in response to the growing heroin and opioid epidemic facing Pennsylvania is clear. The thousands of lives already lost to this epidemic include star athletes, straight-A students, parents who become addicted to painkillers after surgery, and far too many others to count.

We will work with the supporters of this important legislation, the House, and the Governor to ensure that Pennsylvania has the benefit of these tools to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic as quickly as possible.