Will opioid declaration save lives? Western Pennsylvania awaits answers
The nation's deadly opioid epidemic now officially is a public health emergency, and Allegheny and Westmoreland officials are hopeful but skeptical more help is on the way for those struggling with drug addiction.
Some at the forefront said President Trump's announcement is a slow response to a years-long problem that has been getting exponentially worse.
“I think it's about time that this epidemic is being recognized on a national level,” said Colleen Hughes, director of the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission. “Somehow, attention is given to any other issue in society. In our nation, people are dying daily and it has really taken five years to bring attention to this matter.”
Trump declared the epidemic a national public health emergency Thursday. The declaration lasts for 90 days and can be renewed. However, it comes with no additional funding; the scourge kills about 100 Americans a day.
“It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction,” he said. “We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement that the move is an “important step, but this is only the beginning.”
“Without a commitment to fund the crisis in specific ways, it's difficult to say how much this declaration can do,” Wolf said in the statement. “While an awareness of this critical health emergency is important, an increased availability of grant money would help.”
A commission Trump assembled recommended in August that the president declare a national state of emergency.
The Associated Press reported that officials will be able to expand access to telemedicine services, including substance abuse treatment for people living in rural and remote areas. Officials also will be able to more easily deploy state and federal workers, secure Department of Labor grants for the unemployed and shift funding for HIV and AIDs programs to provide more substance abuse treatment for people eligible for those programs.
“Anything that might decrease stigma would be helpful,” said Dr. Jonathan Han, medical director of New Kensington Family Health Center. “I feel like what we really need is so profound. We really need a change in the way we look at people, and that's community building.”
Trump also directed other departments and agencies to exercise their own available emergency authorities to address the crisis.
The Associated Press reported that officials plan to urge Congress to add cash to a national public health emergency fund which contains just $57,000 and hasn't been replenished for years.
From 2009 to present, nearly 4,000 people have died in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties from drug overdoses.
“It's an acknowledgment — this is not typical, we should not consider this to be normative,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “It should liberate resources that we maybe don't have access to.”
Hughes said the telemedicine part may help benefit residents in Westmoreland County's rural areas.
“There's a huge transportation issue, so if there can be telemedicine, it is a huge support,” she said.
Amy Shanahan was hopeful that the declaration might alleviate some regulations for treatment providers, such as the number of cases therapists can take on and rules preceding a person entering treatment, as well as paperwork. She is the director of clinical care services for addiction medicine services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC.
“They hinder access,” she said. “They tie our hands to limitations of how many people can be served.”
Some local officials were skeptical about the declaration, including Tim Phillips, director of the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force.
“Just putting a statement out there isn't going to do much, I don't think,” he said. “I was hoping for a lot more thrust from the feds.”
He is supportive of a legislative package Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, introduced that would funnel $45 billion over 10 years toward treatment, prevention and research.
“His bill would be very helpful,” Phillips said. “That could really change the environment.”
Some thought the declaration may help reduce a negative stigma associated with drug abuse.
“I think it needs to be discussed, absolutely,” said Carmen Capozzi, whose son Sage died from an overdose in 2012. “It's a cultural problem. We need to dig deeper than just throwing money at it. We need to shatter the stigma because it's killing people.”