Report urges broad approach to Pa. heroin epidemic

Greg Gross

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania on Monday released a report that recommends a holistic approach to combating the heroin epidemic ravaging the state.


Heroin addiction is not a personal choice, but it's a chronic medical problem, leaving families and communities torn, legislators said as they released the report.

There's no single way to combat addiction, but rather officials said a broad approach that includes prevention, strong prison sentences for drug dealers and a variety of treatments for addicts must be taken.

"If someone has diabetes you don't send them away for 30 or 60 days and expect them to come back fixed," said Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, chairman of the center. "Drug addiction is the same kind of problem. It's a lifelong problem, and it's a community problem."

A 90-day stint in a rehabilitation facility is the recommended minimum amount of time an addict needs to start the road toward recovery, the report noted.

The 24-page report is the second to be released by the center — a bipartisan legislative research agency of the General Assembly — and is the culmination of more than 11 hours of testimony during three hearings, one of which was held in York City in August.

Locally: Numerous local officials, ranging from police chiefs to York County Coroner Pam Gay, testified at the York hearing and the center included some of their insight in the report.

The report highlights that medication-assisted treatment, in which methadone and buprenorphine are administrated to addicts in conjunction with behavioral treatment, has been successful. It also recommends continuing to fund a pilot program that uses such treatment.

"The combining of the two treatments enables patients to stop using opioids and return to a more stable and productive life," the report states.

Gay testified in favor of medical-assisted treatment at the hearing.

"I don't believe abstinence does work for some people," she said during an interview on Monday. "We have to start to think about the stigma of replacing one drug with another."

Deadly: The drug has proved deadly for the state and York County. In 2014, there were 62 heroin-related deaths in the county.

So far this year there have been 48 heroin-related deaths and eight suspected heroin-related deaths, Gay said.

But the number could be far greater. Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a non-addictive nasal or intravenous treatment that revives those who have overdosed. It was successfully used by first responders more than 80 times in 2015, she said, sometimes on the same person on more than one occasion.

While not all the uses prevented a death, Narcan undoubtedly saved lives.

"It (the number of deaths) would be more without the Narcan," she said.

An act of the state Legislature allowed police officers and other first response professionals to administer the antidote, which has since been made available without a prescription at numerous pharmacies.

Recommendations: The report also outlines other recommendations, many of which are already being undertaken in York County.

It recommends all police officers in the state carry Narcan. In York County, all police officers already carry the drug after a county-wide program was kicked off earlier this year.

The report recommends reinstating mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers. Prosecutors advocated for a five-year  minimum for anyone caught dealing more than 10 grams of heroin and seven years for the second offense.

It also included recommendations requiring more education for medical professionals regarding the prescription of addictive painkillers.

The report notes efforts to reach school-aged children about the dangers of heroin must continue. In York County, the coroner and the Heroin Task Force have made about 60 presentations since July 2014, Gay said, adding the task force is teaming up with the  Byrnes Health Education Center in York City to reach students.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania's vice chairman, said the recommendations are a multi-faceted approach to combatting heroin use.

Center officials reiterated heroin addiction touches people from all walks of life and acknowledged those addicted have a tough time kicking the habit.

"I don't think you can say 'recovered.' They will be dealing with this for the rest of their lives," said Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, treasurer of the center.

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