Later this month, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania will be back in Williamsport, the very place where it began holding public hearings about Pennsylvania’s opioid and heroin crisis nearly three-and-a-half years ago.
There, the bi-partisan, bi-cameral legislative agency will welcome a variety of professional perspectives as it gathers information about the latest that’s being done at the federal, state and local levels to address the drug epidemic.
“It’s like a three-year retrospective,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23, the chairman of the agency’s board of directors. “We have a lot of the same people that testified three-and-a-half years ago like Gene Barr from the state Chamber (of Business and Industry).”
There will also be perspectives from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia Division, as well as local district attorneys, judges and physicians, with hopes that Attorney General Josh Shapiro will have time in his schedule to join the conversation.
With the Center for Rural Pennsylvania serving as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Yaw said having the right data is key to produce any legislative action that can truly make a difference.
This upcoming event will be the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s 13th public hearing across the state. Leading up to the hearing, members have listened to more than 70 hours of presentations from those in the medical and law enforcement fields, as well as the personal stories from parents who have lost children to drugs and those going through recovery.
Information gathered during these hearings have spawned a variety of legislation, including requirements for doctors to be given more pain management training as part of their education.
“One of the things we found out in the hearings is that medical doctors in Pennsylvania receive virtually no pain management training in medical school. In fact, what we found out is that veterinarians receive more medical training than doctors,” said Yaw. “We’ve now, with a couple of pieces of legislation, made pain management and prescription dispensing mandatory as part of the course work in medical schools in Pennsylvania. Other states have also adopted similar laws. We’ve also made it part of the licensing process now.”
Another new law requires doctors to consult with parents or guardians, and get them to sign off, before prescribing opioids to minors. Yaw said teenagers are the most susceptible to becoming addicted to pain killers as they go through getting their wisdom teeth pulled, sports injuries or other events.
There’s also the Good Samaritan Law that arose from the testimony of a mother whose son died of an overdose in the presence of four friends because they were afraid of getting in trouble.
Although the law can help overdose victims get the help they need, Yaw has introduced a bill designed to prevent drug users from abusing the law to keep themselves out of trouble.
“It’s one of the objections, I know, that law enforcement has,” Yaw explained. “… If you call in to get help for somebody, you’re immune from suit. That’s the whole goal of the law, to save somebody’s life. But if you’re the person who overdosed, we’re going to give you a couple of choices. One choice is you can be arrested … or you can purge yourself of that by getting into treatment.”
Other measures being worked on include standardized reporting for the state’s 67 coroners in order to make the data that lawmakers base their actions on more reliable, and a seven-day limit to opioid prescriptions.
However, Yaw stressed that the opioid and heroin epidemic will not be corrected by any single piece of legislation.
“It’s like putting together a rope. Each law that we pass is like one strand in this rope. Eventually you put enough of these things together and you have something that can make a difference,” said Yaw.
If the state can put a dent in the problem 10 years down the road, Yaw feels they will have been successful.
When the Center for Rural Pennsylvania began its hearings on the drug epidemic in 2014, Yaw said he was coming into it with little experience in that area.
“Somebody had asked me, ‘Could you use the center as a vehicle to raise awareness in rural Pennsylvania?’ When we got started and involved in it, we found out that this isn’t just a rural problem, it’s a Pennsylvania problem throughout,” he explained. “Probably the most surprising thing is that nobody is immune. There’s no age group, there’s no race or sex. Everybody is subject to this.”
What also makes this problem unique is the “legitimate feeder system” in place with regard to pain management prescriptions by doctors, according to Yaw. While prescription opioids can be beneficial if administered properly, he said overprescription and improper use has contributed to the surge of heroin.
He added that 80 percent of heroin addicts begin with prescription opioids.
“None of the other drug issues in the United States have this legitimate feeder system,” said Yaw, adding that although lawmakers have experienced pushback from the medical society, younger medical professionals have been more proactive with their role in addressing the issue.
Over the years, Yaw said he’s seen the stigma of addiction change and people recognize it as less of a moral shortcoming and more of a disease, especially with evidence that some people’s brains are more susceptible to addiction than others. He’s also seen more involvement in the communities.
“We can’t just arrest ourselves out of the problem. We can’t just make it go away. Treatment needs to be so individualized. There’s no cookie-cutter approach, if you do one thing it will solve everyone’s problem,” said Yaw. “The most critical thing is that the community needs to be involved.”
Although it doesn’t seem like it on the surface, Yaw said the fight against heroin is one against a sophisticated network of dealers, with a majority of the northeast’s heroin based in Mexico.
“They actually do market research as to where they are going to sell,” Yaw explained. “It’s so sophisticated how these things happen now. It’s not like normal street crime.”
A lot of the sales are coordinated via phone call, resulting in either a meet-up in a parking lot or, more likely, home delivery. And with these hired delivery people rotated in and out of different areas, Yaw said this makes things more difficult for law enforcement to track.
“Some of the runners will only carry a small amount, a certain number of balloons, and they carry them in their mouth and always have a bottle of water with them so they can swallow them, and it’s always an amount that gets a minimum penalty,” said Yaw. “I feel for prosecutors and for law enforcement. That’s why they say they can’t solve the problem. Arresting everybody isn’t going to solve the problem. You need to work on the demand end.”
Although the Oct. 26 public hearing is to serve as an update to everything going on with the drug epidemic, Yaw expects that testimony will reflect how the problem has only become worse, not better, with 13 Pennsylvanians dying each day and 60,000 people dying each year across the United States to drug overdose.
“A lot of people equate that to the Vietnam War. In 12 years of the Vietnam war, we lost about 56,000 to 58,000 people,” said Yaw. “I don’t understand why people aren’t out marching in the streets. … I don’t mean to downplay what happened in Las Vegas, there were 500 people injured and 58 or 59 people killed. I understand that’s a hell of a tragedy, but 60,000 people — that’s more than 1,000 people a week. Why don’t we have the same coverage in the newspaper or media? I don’t understand that.”
The State of Addiction public hearing will begin at 9 a.m. in the Walnut Conference Center at UPMC Susquehanna, 700 High St. in Williamsport. The Oct. 26 hearing is open to the public, and Yaw said attendees will be able to speak with presenters after the meeting.
All past presentations are currently available on Yaw’s website at www.senatorgeneyaw.com. Video from the hearing will be posted after the event.