With an increasing number of lives lost and families devastated by the heroin epidemic, communities in western Pennsylvania want the state’s continued financial and statutory support for their ongoing efforts against opioid addiction, Senator Don White (R-41) said following Tuesday’s (September 20) public hearing of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Senator White co-hosted the hearing with Senator Gene Yaw (R-23), Chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s Board of Directors. Senators Scott Hutchinson (R-21) and Pat Stefano (R-32) were also panelists for the public hearing.
Once believed to be an “urban problem,” heroin and opioid abuse has taken root in Indiana, Armstrong and surrounding counties in recent years and the results have been widespread and devastating, several testifiers told the panel.
“I believe this was a very informative meeting. We did not come up with a ‘silver bullet’ that will solve all of our problems, but there were some very interesting exchanges between testifiers and the panel,” Senator White said. “Our local speakers provided a well-rounded account of how heroin and opioids are impacting families and devastating our communities. They also made it clear that we aren’t surrendering to the problem. They are fighting back and they want the state to be a partner in those efforts.”
“It was a good visit to Indiana County,” said Senator Yaw. “There is a strong interest here on the part of all parties and that bodes well. One of the other things we have learned over the course of the now 11 hearings that the Center has held on the opioid abuse crisis is the importance of a coordinated community effort. If you don’t have community involvement, you won’t be successful.”
Debbie Friday, the mother of a woman fighting heroin addiction, told the panel that she has not only dealt with numerous legal, financial and personal problems created by her daughter’s drug addiction, but now has assumed the responsibility of raising her four grandchildren. “I love being a grandma. It is such a blessing to me,” Friday told the panel. “But, because of my daughter’s heroin addiction, we can no longer be just grandparents to Isaiah, Madison, Xavier and Cameron. We are now in a parenting role.”
Indiana County Coroner Jerry Overman said his county recorded 10 substance abuse-related deaths in 2008 and has seen a steady increase in subsequent years. In 2015, the county recorded 36 substance abuse-related deaths, with a vast majority being related to opioids. So far in 2016, the county has recorded 20 substance abuse-related deaths. “There are 10 more pending and I’m sure all 10 are going to be opioid-related,” he said.
In some cases, the system is its own worst enemy, according to Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty, who said that placing an addict in a short-term detox program is insufficient. After completing that time, many go right back out “to the lifestyle.” They use the same amount of heroin as they did before drying out through detox and subsequently end up with an overdose. “Addicts want the most powerful high, even if it kills them,” he said.
Dougherty and Indiana County Chief Detective and Indiana County Drug Task Force Supervisor David Rostis said a profit-driven marketplace has created a local distribution system based out of Pittsburgh. Where a “stamp bag” of heroin might sell for $3 to $5 in Pittsburgh, it sells for $10 to $20 in the local region. Rostis said that unlike marijuana, where dealers are usually local residents, heroin is often distributed by “runners” from Pittsburgh. “Lock one up and the city sends another within days or hours,” he said.
Armstrong County District Magistrate J. Gary DeComo, a long-time local leader in the battle against substance abuse, said the incentive created by the profit margin is a major issue. “How are rural communities going to stop a heroin addict from going to the city and buying 10 stamp bags, five for personal use and five for sale?” DeComo asked. “Fifteen years ago when an individual was picked up with stamp bags of heroin, it was a big deal because we had a major dealer. Today, if an individual is picked up, that person is just an everyday user. We need to take a proactive approach because this is a problem that law enforcement cannot solve on its own.”
Randy Thomas and Daniel Christy of Citizens Ambulance Service said the increasing number of heroin and opioid-related overdose cases places additional strain on first responders, both physically and financially. “The cost for an EMS responder to simply ‘roll wheels’ easily exceeds $400,” Thomas said. “In addition, the cost incurred during the treatment of these patients continues to escalate. A recent response to an opioid overdose induced cardiac arrest resulted in over $500 of medical supplies being used in addition to the associated EMS personnel costs.”
In addition to detailing the growing prevalence of heroin and opioid abuse in rural communities, testifiers also provided insight on the various local efforts to address the problem.
Apollo Borough Mayor and Director of Residents Against Illicit Drugs (RAID) Jeffrey Held said the growing heroin epidemic has necessitated an increased police presence and a coordinated community effort to raise awareness about the perils of drug addiction. “Local people know their communities intimately and are the best ones to tackle change from within, but often are stifled by a lack of support from their county, state or federal governments,” Mayor Held said.
Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission Executive Director Kami Anderson, Alliance Medical Services Executive Director Pam Gehlmann and Spirit Life, Inc. Executive Director Louis Wagner, Jr. closed out the hearing by detailing the efforts by their agencies to provide comprehensive treatment and counseling for people battling with addiction issues.
The Center for Rural Pennsylvania is a bipartisan, bicameral legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly. The Center works with the legislature, educators, state and federal executive branch agencies, and national, statewide, regional and local organizations to maximize resources and strategies that can better serve Pennsylvania’s nearly 3.5 million rural residents.
A July 2016 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration Philadelphia Field Division’s Intelligence Program indicated that more than 3,300 people died from an overdose in Pennsylvania in 2015. That same report cited a 23.4 percent increase in the total number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania from 2014 to 2015. Information being collected this year point to a projected increase in overdose deaths for 2016.
Contact: Senator White: Joe Pittman firstname.lastname@example.org
Senator Yaw: Nick Troutman email@example.com
Click for video of the public hearing.