With new guidelines for emergency response, how will Pa. lawmakers address the opioid crisis?

By: - May 23, 2021 7:27 am

(Photo via The Conversation)

Though it’s been pushed off the front page by the pandemic, Pennsylvania has spent more than two years fighting another ongoing health crisis under the cover of a disaster declaration: opioid addiction.

And now advocates worry that Tuesday’s referendum vote limiting Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers will stifle efforts to treat and prevent addiction.

Pennsylvania reported its most overdose deaths — 5,396 — in 2017. That number has peaked, but totals have remained in the four-thousands over the last three years. 

Data for 2020 is still being finalized, but 4,880 overdose deaths have been reported thus far, according to preliminary reports. That’s 422 more deaths than in 2019, acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam said last month.

“As opioid overdoses continue to rise in the commonwealth, the opioid disaster declaration remains critically important to Pennsylvanians with substance use disorder,” Health Department spokesperson Maggi Barton told the Capital-Star. “The administration is committed to working with the General Assembly to ensure necessary steps are taken to put Pennsylvanians first and continue to support individuals and their loved ones, as well as drug and alcohol treatment providers.”

Cherie Brummans, the executive director of the Alliance of Community Service Providers, hopes the General Assembly will “follow the science” when making decisions. 

The Alliance, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, provides services to children and adults with mental health conditions, substance use disorders and intellectual disabilities. It’s part of a statewide network of agencies working to address quality of life issues, including addiction and recovery.

“The science involves human beings who have basic human needs,” Brummans said. “I’ve seen the fallout, and sometimes, it’s the smallest thing in the world to make sure people survive. From what we know about people who are in recovery is that when they have a place to live, food to eat and a safe job — there’s a much higher success rate of maintaining sobriety.”

Wolf signed the 14th, 90-day renewal of the opioid declaration on May 7.

In a statement, the Democratic governor said the declaration lets the state loosen regulations and work outside “typical procedures to expedite aid and initiatives.” He added that it gives agencies the flexibility to coordinate and share resources with communities in need.

Under the declaration, Wolf called on Pennsylvanians to carry naloxone — which can treat narcotic overdoses in emergencies — and the acting physician general signed an updated naloxone standing order that permits community-based organizations to provide naloxone by mail. Without access to life-saving medication, Brummans said there would be more overdose deaths. 

The declaration limits doctors in the number of opioid prescriptions they can prescribe. It also provides access to medication-assisted treatment programs, and established Centers of Excellence — programs that treat Medicaid patients who might not have access to medication-assisted treatment and recovery programs, which are already limited. The order also waived birth certificates to enter into a treatment program.

Education initiatives to raise awareness of opioid abuse would not feel much impact if the declaration were to end, Denise McCann, vice president of programs at the Centre County Youth Service Bureau. 

However, that might not be true for treatment programs, she added.

Republicans have declared victory over Tuesday’s referenda votes which limited limiting declarations to 21 days, and gave the General Assembly power to end an emergency with a majority vote; however, they have not announced if they plan to extend the opioids emergency declaration.

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said lawmakers will work with the governor to determine “what we get out of the emergency declaration and what we could potentially lose without it.”

“However, one point is certain — we will continue to look for ways to minimize the impact of the heroin and opioid epidemic on our communities,” Thompson said. “We were making great strides in the battle against opioids in our community before COVID-19 hit.”

The General Assembly has passed legislation that encourages the use of beds in healthcare facilities for detoxification and treatment; requires instruction on opioid abuse in schools; establishes standards for addiction recovery houses, and regulates the distribution and disposal of medications in response to the crisis.

“The hope is that now that the COVID-19 pandemic is in decline, we can get back on track and continue to find ways to reduce the impact of the heroin and opioid epidemic in our communities,” Thompson added.

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