Local, statewide solutions to the opioid epidemic

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What’s being done to fight the opioid epidemic locally and statewide? That’s what students and members of the public learned during a public hearing on the opioid epidemic Thursday at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown campus.

“I think awareness is always good,” said Paige Torchio, a senior at UPJ.

“It’s a lot of information I’d definitely never heard before,” said Paige Bogesdorfer, another senior.

State Representatives met with local leaders and the public to talk about the opioid crisis and the latest steps to combat it, including House Bill 1987.

The bill, which passed the State House in June and is currently in the State Senate, would restrict the prescription and use of Fentanyl for two years, except for serious medical needs like surgery or managing pain for cancer patients.

“it has some good valid uses, but at this moment, Fentanyl is an incredible danger in our county,” said State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D- Cambria.

In Cambria County, Fentanyl was linked to more than half of all fatal drug overdoses in 2016: 51 percent.

In 2017 and so far in 2018, that number jumped to more than 70 percent.

“Whether it’s rural, suburban or urban, and it’s not limited to a particular area, we are seeing it statewide,” said Ray Barishansky, the deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Cambria County has seen progress. To date in 2018, there have been 36 fatal overdoses. This time last year, there were 64.

“The problem is: these overdoses are just more dangerous,” Barbin said.

Torchio and Bogesdorfer said they support the bill.

“If’ you’re just prescribing them so easily, people are just going to get addicted more often, since they are so easily accessible,” said Bogesdorfer.

Legislators, addiction specialists and law enforcement admitted that passing House Bill 1987 could reduce the use of Fentanyl, but it won’t fix the problem entirely.

“Unfortunately, Fentanyl that we are seeing is typically not the result of prescription,” said Arnold Bernard, an assistant Cambria County district attorney.”It’s the result of Fentanyl being processed and generated in clandestine labs in Mexico and illegally imported into the United States.”

Other possible solutions discussed, included mandatory minimum sentences for Fentanyl-related crimes, mandatory treatment and local support groups like Nar-Anon Family Group and Parenting by Choice.

Plus, the successful distribution of Narcan to first responders, which reversed the effects of opioid overdoses, saving 70 lives in Cambria County and about 3,000 statewide.

“I call that a victory,” said Barishansky.

Barishansky also mentioned that the state received a $5 million dollar grant from the CDC, in part to gather drug overdose data from coroners’ offices across the state. The PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs is also waiting to hear back about a $55 million grant from the federal government to help combat the opioid epidemic.

Torchio and Bogesdorfer added that solutions like House Bill 1987, should encourage everyone to open the dialogue and brainstorm more solutions to the opioid epidemic.

“If people are aware of it, education-wise, they can come up with new ways to fight it,” Torchio said.

“If we don’t get a hold of this problem,” Barbin said. “We’re going to risk more mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters dying from Fentanyl-related heroin overdoses.”

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