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Working Group Releases Report on Combating Opioid, Heroin Epidemic

Deanna Garcia
90.5 WESA

Heroin and prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels in western Pennsylvania and across the nation, according to U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania David Hickton. His U.S. Attorney’s Working Group on Drug Overdoses and Addiction has released a report outlining the problem and making recommendations to combat it going forward. The main goal of the group is to reduce overdose deaths.

The problem itself, according to officials, stems from prescription drug abuse. When legal narcotics become too expensive or hard to come by, those who are addicted turn to cheaper and easier to get heroin.

“In Allegheny County and surrounding counties, we’re losing 400 to 500 people a year to drug overdose deaths,” said Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center. “This is incredible – to put into perspective, I believe back in Allegheny County alone back in 1985/86, the medical examiner’s office told me they had 22 drug overdose deaths a year.”

U.S. Attorney Hickton said Western Pennsylvania has become a leader in combating the issue on the law enforcement side, but added that alone can’t solve the problem.

“We cannot prosecute our way to the public safety we desire and deserve,” said Hickton. “We have to find a way to reduce the demand for opioids. We work on the supply problem in the criminal justice arena, but the community has to help with regard to reducing the demand.”

To that end, the group recommends state lawmakers pass a bill that would create a statewide prescription drug monitoring program and enacting a law that provide immunity from prosecution for people who call 911 to report an overdose while in possession of drugs themselves. Another recommendation is to minimize the criminalization of addiction and aim, instead, to treat it. Currently, it may go unnoticed as many physicians don’t screen for drug abuse.

“In your average community hospital, 25 percent of all people there meet medical criteria for a substance use disorder, in your inner city teaching hospitals that’s more like 40 percent, psychiatric hospitals – 50 percent,” said Capretto. “We need to do a better job screening it throughout the medical community – with family doctors, emergency rooms.”

Another issue is capacity at treatment centers.

“We believe only 10 to 15 percent of those who need treatment are getting it,” said Mike Flaherty, founder of the Institute for Research, Education and Training in the Addictions in Pittsburgh. “The capacity is maxed by its funding and the funding is insufficient in Pennsylvania and this nation, not only in Allegheny or western Pennsylvania.”

Flaherty said the report recommends that a plan going forward include all stakeholders – from patients to parents, from law enforcement to the community and treatment providers.

“It brings recovery support people in in a way they have never been asked to take a roll before and it reduced the silos in the communications,” said Flaherty. “In western Pennsylvania, we found that there were a number of commendable activities that were not being coordinated and to simply coordinate that communication and bring it forward.”

The working group will continue to collaborate with the U.S. Attorney’s office on implementation of the action plan and will reconvene within 120 days for a follow-up on progress.