CLARION – More than two dozen Clarion County elected officials, law enforcement and community leaders joined U.S. Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Howard) last week to discuss the opioid epidemic impacting communities across the country.

A member of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force for the last two years, Thompson — who spent 28 years in the healthcare field — met the group at Clarion Hospital on Friday, Jan. 26 to not only speak on current federal and legislative responses to the opioid issue, but to hear feedback from the local community as well.

“This is probably the single-most important public health issue facing our families and communities today,” Thompson said of the opioid epidemic, noting that more Pennsylvania residents died from opioid overdoses in 2017 than car crashes. In fact, he continued, the statewide overdose death rate increased 37 percent between 2016 and 2017, averaging 13 drug-related deaths per day. “The problem we’re experiencing with opioids and heroin has grown to crisis proportion partly because we were in denial and too slow to recognize that we had a problem.”

While there is “no single solution” for the growing crisis, Thompson said the only way to beat the epidemic, which does not discriminate on age, race, gender or socioeconomic status, is to surround it at the federal, state and local levels.

To that end, according to Thompson, Congress is seeking to address the issue by working to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions and to enable healthcare workers to identify and treat opioid addiction. For example, proposed bills would expand addiction treatment to veterans, inmates and rural areas, develop guidelines for medical school and continuing education courses dealing with pain management and addiction prevention, and require that all Medicare Part D prescriptions for controlled substances be transferred electronically by 2020.

From the administrative side, the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed a five-point plan that would improve access to prevention, treatment, recovery and support services; target the availability and distribution of overdose reversing drugs; strengthen Public Health data reporting; support cutting-edge research to advance the understanding of pain and addiction; and advance the practice of pain management to enable access to high-quality evidence-based pain care to reduce the burden of pain on individuals as well as the inappropriate use of opioids.

Following Thompson’s remarks, the floor was opened to discussion and comments from local officials.

In response to Congress’ plan to target the availability of overdose-reversing drugs, Clarion County District Attorney Mark Aaron urged caution with any legislation promoting the use of such drugs, such as Suboxone.

“You have to be really careful with Suboxone because it is an opioid just like heroin,” Aaron said, noting that at least half of the cases heard at parole court each week deal with individuals abusing Suboxone. He instead urged the use of other non-opioid treatment drugs, such as Vivitrol. “We’ve just had such a terrible experience with Suboxone.”

Clarion County Chief Detective and Clarion Borough Police Chief William Peck IV echoed Aaron’s views on the importance of implementing stricter regulations on how drugs like Suboxone are prescribed.

“We were buying Suboxone like candy,” Peck said, pointing to the “revolving door” of abusers who get prescriptions and in turn sell them. “It needs to be regulated somehow because it is just as bad as heroin.”

Thompson agreed that while addiction treatment is important, it cannot lead to new problems or unintended consequences of its own. He also encouraged the use of alternative treatments while simultaneously getting to the root causes of addiction.

Clarion Hospital EMS director Don Hosey and Clarion Hospital director of pharmacy Will Simpson concurred by pointing out that current means of treating addiction are becoming a lifestyle rather than a rehabilitation.

“In recent memory, there have been several heroin deaths where Narcan was on the table or in [the person’s] hand,” Hosey said, adding that there is also a lack of EMS personnel when it comes to dealing with the number of opioid-related calls.

Clarion County Coroner Randall Stom questioned whether current efforts were more concerned with pain management or pain abatement. He pointed out that insurance companies won’t cover alternative treatments such as acupuncture and acupressure, but continue to pay for opioids.

“People are managing their pain with opioids where if they had a complete picture of how to manage their pain, including overall lifestyle changes, it could be better for them,” Stom said.

The discussion ended with Thompson voicing his appreciation for the local input.

“We’ve certainly made some significant efforts, and I hope to make some progress with the collaborations at federal, state and local levels,” Thompson said, adding that the process of combatting the epidemic is still in the beginning stages. “There is so much more left to be done.”

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