OP-ED: Continuing to help those with the disease of addiction

Dr. Rachel Levine
Pennsylvania Department of Health
Physician General Dr Rachel Levine and Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs Gary Tennis fill prescriptions for naloxone at Minnich's Pharmacy, 976 S George St., Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. The life-saving drug is now available to all PA residents. John A. Pavoncello photo

We know there isn’t a city, town or borough in the commonwealth, or in the nation, left untouched by the opioid epidemic. We know that this epidemic is an equal opportunity disease — there is no gender, race, ethnicity, income bracket or education level left untouched by this disease. In the process, an entire generation of Pennsylvanians are suffering and dying.

While we are seeing progress — in 2018, Pennsylvania saw an 18 percent decrease in drug-related deaths — overdoses are not going down. We are saving lives, but we need to do more to get people into recovery.

The Wolf administration has worked to remove the barriers to treatment that prevented recovery. We have 45 Centers of Excellence and eight Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication Assisted Treatment (PaCMAT) programs that are working to ensure that access to treatment is available.

The PaCMAT programs work through a hub-and-spoke model, with the addiction treatment specialist as the hub and the primary care and specialty physicians as the spokes. This allows access to treatment close to home.

The Department of Corrections has worked to expand access to treatment in state prisons, including to women who are pregnant and by providing access to buprenorphine.

However, in order to get someone with the disease of addiction into treatment, they have to be alive.

And that is why there is something you can do that is vitally important. Every Pennsylvanian is a first responder in this battle to overcome the opioid crisis. By simply carrying the life-saving medication, Naloxone, you can help someone you love, you know or even a complete stranger transition from active addiction to recovery.

We want to make it easier for you to access Naloxone. In honor of Recovery Month, we will be holding a pair of events where you can get free Naloxone while supplies last; Sept. 18 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sept. 25 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be more than 57 locations statewide where you can get Naloxone, for free, and training on how to use it.

When it comes to drug overdoses, many people have a preconceived idea of who the typical overdose death victim is.

I strongly reject that stereotyping.

The faces of this crisis include a young adult who became addicted because he was injured while playing pickup basketball and was prescribed opioids to deal with the pain.

They include the grandmother who was prescribed opioids when she slipped and fell on ice and became addicted even before the prescription ran out. 

They also include the once proud, strong man brought low by a disease, like diabetes, who needed something to help him deal with the excruciating pain.

We must eliminate the stigma that surrounds the substance use disorder crisis. People who have a substance use disorder have a health condition. Opioids and other addictive substances rewire the brain’s circuits to the extreme disadvantage of those affected.

However, I am a positive and optimistic person and I believe that treatment works and recovery is possible.

We cannot get someone into treatment who is dead. And that is why the access to naloxone, whether free at a distribution, through my standing order at your local pharmacy, or provided to first responders as another life-saving tool, is essential.

Together, we can all help bring an end to this crisis in Pennsylvania.

— Dr. Rachel Levine is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health.