In special House meeting, Rep. Tim Murphy calls for intensification in fight against opioids
This year, there will be more drug overdose deaths in the United States than the 58,307 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
That’s what U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy announced on the House floor Tuesday during an hour-long discussion about the opioid epidemic that is devastating Western Pennsylvania and regions across the nation. Stressing the need for bipartisan work on the issue, the Republican from Upper St. Clair called for an intensification of the fight against drug addiction.
The statistics are disturbing, Mr. Murphy and representatives from other states said. Over the past two decades, opioid overdoses have quadrupled. In Allegheny County, 613 people died from drug overdoses in 2016 alone.
“There’s not a state or district that hasn’t been touched by this problem,” said Buddy Carter, R-Ga.
But the stories behind those numbers are even more harrowing: Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, told the House about a Pennsylvania couple who overdosed in December, leaving their infant child to die of neglect.
“The opioid addiction epidemic that is streaking across the country is not one we’ll be able to arrest or incarcerate our way out of,” said Bill Johnson, R-Ohio. “It’s an issue that will take everyone from the top to the bottom, from the President of the United States to the family members, the local officials.”
One reason why opioid addiction has become so pervasive, Mr. Murphy said, is that pain surveys in hospitals—in which doctors ask patients to rate the amount of pain they are experiencing—are often linked to hospitals’ Medicaid payments. The connection creates an incentive for hospitals to prescribe painkillers for patients, leading some down the path of addiction. Mr. Murphy noted that 80 of addictions begin with a prescription.
During the past few years, there has been a surge in the use and abuse of fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, Mr. Murphy said. Fentanyl tends to originate in China and India and can easily be shipped to the United States through the mail — so postal workers unwittingly deliver deadly drugs to peoples’ doorsteps, he added.
Many of the representatives acknowledged the inroads made by the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, signed into law by Barack Obama last year. It authorized millions of dollars annually for overdose prevention, treatment, recovery, law enforcement efforts, and criminal justice reform. But more work is needed, they said.
Mr. Carter, of Georgia, emphasized that since prescription data is not shared across state lines, some addicts can obtain opioids from different pharmacies in different states.
Mr. Murphy called for higher-quality treatment for opioid addicts, pointing out that half of the counties in America have no psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers or drug and alcohol counselors. More certified addiction counselors must be available in emergency rooms, he added.
“It’s like trying to fight a war without soldiers,” he said.
Doctors’ access to patients’ medical records must be expanded to prevent doctors from over-prescribing drugs, he said, and Medicaid payments linked to pain assessments should be eliminated. He also emphasized the need for public school programs to help young people understand the dangers of addiction, and take-back programs to prevent drugs from being stolen or misused.
Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said Medicaid is a “life-line program” for many recovering addicts, because it provides support for treatment. But more resources are needed to stem the drug epidemic, she said.
“It’s become so bad that even librarians are learning how to treat overdoses,” Ms. Kaptur said.