Residents of the Mahoning Valley hardly needed an empirical health report from Uncle Sam to enlighten them that the scope of the insipid opiate scourge continues to spiral out of control.
Nonetheless, a report released this month by the National Center for Health Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, serves a purpose in validating the depth of the epidemic and reinforcing the need for ongoing concerted action on local, state and federal plains.
As we head out of a year that all indicators show will again set new records for opiate overdoses and deaths, any report card on the quality of responses from the public sector would, at best, be a mixed bag of achievements and letdowns.
The bottom line, however, remains that the deadly trend lines of the epidemic continue to move in the wrong direction – higher and higher.
As the new CDC study so vividly illustrates, the opiate menace reached new and alarming heights nationwide in 2016. That study reports 62,600 Americans died of unintentional overdoses, a 21 percent increase over 2015 levels.
It also showed Ohio had made little progress in shedding its notoriety as a national capital of the epidemic. The Buckeye State ranked second only to West Virginia among the 50 states in highest overdose death rates at 39.2 per 100,000 population. The national average is less than half that at 19.2.
In addition, the report documented a 100 percent rise in the number of deaths from synthetic opiates – most commonly fentanyl that is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin. Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia sit in the epicenter of that disturbing trend.
Collectively, the data serve as a clarion call for continued vigilance and concrete actions on multiple fronts.
On the local level, we’ve seen numerous promising initiatives and actions in 2016. Just this week, Trumbull County commissioners joined officials in many other counties and states who have sued pharmaceutical companies that many regard as complicit in the drug-death trap.
“This case is about one thing: corporate greed,” the 270-page Trumbull suit says, adding, “Defendants put their desire for profits above the health and well being of the County of Trumbull consumers.”
A victory in the lawsuit could funnel millions of dollars toward compensating the county for excessive costs in fighting the epidemic on the streets and treating its victims in clinics.
OTHER POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS
Elsewhere this year, Mahoning County launched countywide Quick Response Teams comprised of deputy sheriffs, emergency medical services representatives and professional drug counselors. The team contacts OD victims within 24 to 72 hours of their brush with death and leads them to counseling and treatment.
Valleywide, new opiate action groups and a campaign led by The Vindicator and other local media outlets known as “Your Voice Mahoning Valley” is gathering input from those caught deepest in the plague as tools to fight it.
Statewide, advances have been made as well. Ohio, too, this year filed lawsuit against major pharmaceutical companies, claiming they fraudulently marketed painkillers as safe and nonaddictive. The state also slapped strict limits on painkiller prescriptions and broadened access to Narcan, an opiate antidote, to law enforcement and the general public.
Progress on the federal level, however, has been more spotty. Among the best news of the year came late Thursday, when U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, through persistence and new support from the Fraternal Order of Police, pushed through his INTERDICT Act hours before senators beat feet for their long holiday recess.
Although unanimous Senate approval of the measure was tardy (it was introduced in March), the act offers another layer of protection from fentanyl. It provides $15 million for additional high-tech screening equipment and lab resources to detect the opioid before it enters the U.S.
Given the president’s declaration of a national emergency over the epidemic, Donald Trump should waste no time in signing the INTERDICT Act into law.
Speaking of his national declaration made last fall, state and local communities are still awaiting concrete funding and assistance from it. We’re waiting, too, for action on other key legislation, such as the STOP Act sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would require packages to include electronic data to detect drug contraband and the CARE act to vastly increase access to opioid abuse treatment for those on Medicaid. Like Brown’s INTERDICT Act, STOP and CARE have languished in committees for months and months.
Now that Congress has indisputably shown bipartisan support for fighting the opiate epidemic, there is no good reason for our representatives and senators not to act with all due speed come January on those and other anti-opiate abuse measures.
Inaction would translate into shameful apathy toward one of the gravest public-health crises of our times.