Bipartisan legislative panel seeks insight into state's drug overdose crisis
With Westmoreland County on pace to break its drug overdose death record for the eighth consecutive year, a bipartisan legislative panel studying the state's opioid crisis will convene Wednesday to hear testimony.
Judges Megan Bilik DeFazio and Christopher Feliciani, school officials and a founder of one of Pennsylvania's largest state-licensed outpatient opioid treatment facilities will testify before the House Republican and Democratic Policy Committee at Westmoreland County Community College near Youngwood.
Opioid abuse is a nonpartisan issue impacting everyone in the state, said Kerry Benninghoff, a Centre County Republican and chairman of the House majority policy committee.
“Opioid addiction does not discriminate. It is killing our young people, our veterans, our friends, our family members and our neighbors. Working together is critical so we can get our arms around this growing crisis,” he said.
Benninghoff said legislators hope to learn from those who testify about the effectiveness of existing strategies to combat addiction and what other tools, resources and services may be needed to help.
The legislators are crisscrossing the state with eight stops through September to explore the crisis and how it impacts communities. After the hearings, the committee hopes to make recommendations to battle the epidemic when the legislature reconvenes this fall for a special session.
The panel will hear grim statistics during its Westmoreland visit. Coroner Ken Bacha reports the county is on pace to surpass its fatal overdose record of 126 last year by 22 percent.
With 57 overdose deaths confirmed through June 30 and another 20 awaiting confirmation, the county is projected to have 154 overdose deaths by the end of the year.
Bacha has been sounding an alarm about the drug crisis for more than a decade after noticing annual increases in fatal overdoses recorded by his office. However, he said Friday that he believes recent government and private responses and continuing public education eventually will curb the trend.
“We've made some progress with recent legislation and appropriations to combat the problem. We've implemented a lot of public education on it, and locally we have a new overdose task force director (Tim Phillips) in place,” Bacha said. “I believe we will hit a plateau very soon.”
He pointed out that 17 county police departments carry Narcan to treat overdoses. District Attorney John Peck's office recently purchased 320 doses of the overdose antidote through grant money provided by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Highmark and UPMC. Police departments received the drug at no cost.
“We recently had one person saved by police in Greensburg, and I believe three people have been saved in recent months by police in Murrysville. And that program is relatively new,” Bacha said.
Secretary Karen Murphy has announced the state health department is ready to launch a program to monitor use of prescription drugs starting Aug. 25.
The Achieving Better Care by Monitoring All Prescriptions Program was authorized under a 2014 law. The program is based on an electronic database listing all controlled substances that are prescribed in Pennsylvania.
Physicians and dispensers will be able to check the database to alert officials to any instances of unusual or unacceptable practices in obtaining controlled substances. For example, if someone receives prescriptions from two doctors for a narcotic and goes to two pharmacies to get them filled, that information will show up in the database.
The new state budget provides $20 million for initiatives to combat the overdose epidemic and $3.1 million to operate the database.
In addition to DeFazio and Feliciani, high school principals Kathleen Charlton of Hempfield and David Zilli of Greensburg Salem are scheduled to testify before the committee, as well as Tom Plaitano, founder of MedTech Healthcare Group.
The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. in the college's science hall theater. It will be livestreamed at: www.pagoppolicy.com.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860 or email@example.com.