One week after Democratic Sen. Bob Casey vowed to continue a push for ways lawmakers can help, President Barack Obama promised to use his position and federal programs to try to combat heroin use and prescription painkiller abuse, a scourge that’s overtaken the District and the country as a whole.
“This crisis is taking lives; it’s destroying families and shattering communities all across the country,” Obama said at a panel discussion on opioid drug abuse.
“That’s the thing about substance abuse; it doesn’t discriminate. It touches everybody…I did stuff, and I’ve been very honest about it,” Obama said.
“So when I think about it, there but for the grace of God.”
In a conference call with reporters a week earlier, Casey said he’s also pushing a bill that would allow physicians who prescribe Buprenorphine, an opiate derivative that’s designed to reduce the cravings and effects of heroin, to give it to more patients.
“There is a terrible problem … It’s unacceptable to look at the numbers and throw up our hands and say that there’s nothing we can do. There’s a lot we can do,” he said.”
Locally, according to an earlier report by WTOP, the number of heroin deaths in Fairfax County, Virginia, doubled.
Lucy Caldwell, a county spokeswoman, said at least 76 people overdosed and 18 people died in the county in 2014.
In Loudoun County, heroin overdoses have skyrocketed 400 percent since 2012.
It’s a big problem in Maryland, too. Gov. Larry Hogan and Anne Arundel County officials have declared it a “public health emergency.”
Approximately 430 people died from heroin in 2014, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That’s nearly as many as the number of vehicle fatalities during the entire year of 2013.
Heroin deaths in Anne Arundel County are on pace to double since 2013.
So many people are dying because the drug is cheaper, stronger, and more deadly than ever. And the gateway drugs are in nearly everyone’s medicine cabinets, health officials said.
“Nobody starts with heroin. Nobody wakes up today and says, ‘Eh. Let me try some heroin,’” Maj. Jason Bogue with the Prince George’s County Narcotics Enforcement Division told WTOP.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly four times as many people died from painkillers in 2012 than in 1999, mostly because these drugs are more available than ever. That same year, doctors wrote about 260 million prescriptions – enough for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills.
Casey has co-sponsored two bills – both introduced in May by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey – that he believes will help in the fight against heroin overdoses.
Senate Bill 1410 would increase funding to expand programs that treat addicts and help them to recover. It would also provide access to those programs to pregnant women and parents of children and teens in states with high levels of heroin and opiate addiction.
Also, Senate Bill 1455 would allow physicians to treat up to 100 patients – up from 30 – with Buprenorphine. It would also allow nurse practitioners to treat patients with the drug under standards outline in the bill.
“We can’t stand by and wait for the disease of addiction to cut short promising lives and tear families apart,” Casey said, noting that the number of heroin deaths in the state has risen dramatically over the past five years.
“The challenge is increasing every month, every year,” he said. “Drug overdoses now surpass car accidents and that’s hard for me to understand.”
In August, White House officials revealed a plan to have drug enforcement agents coordinate with government health workers in tracing heroin routes. It also said that it has initiated tighter rules in prescribing well-known painkillers
The president said he shares in the plight of families who almost lost children to drug addiction. He pointed out that children from poor and minority families are the ones most vulnerable to addiction but are just as deserving to be saved as others.
“It could be Malia or Sasha … or any of our kids,” Obama said. “Those kids don’t always look like us; don’t live in the same neighborhoods as us. They’re just as precious.”
The government has proposed a $133 million budget to be used in preventing the over prescription of opioids; collecting more data on overdose cases; and providing drug abuse victims with better access to a drug called Naloxone, which can reverse the health effects of an opiate overdose.
“There’s a lot that Congress can do, and I know that no one piece of legislation will take away the problem,” Casey said.
“I do know that good treatment works and in order to have good treatment, you have to have the resources and a strategy in place. I’m determined to be part of the solution.”