The Public Health Fight of Our Lives

By Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health

The opioid crisis is the largest public health issue of our time.

While the crisis has affected the entire country, Pennsylvania has been hit particularly hard. In 2017, more than 5,400 people died from an overdose. That is more than 13 people dying from this crisis each day.

It is important for people to know that opioid use disorder, or substance use disorder, is a disease. It is not a moral failing.

Governor Tom Wolf, in January 2018, declared the opioid crisis a disaster in Pennsylvania. This created the Opioid Operational Command Center, which brings together 16 state agencies and offices on a weekly basis to break down silos and allow for the sharing of ideas and information.

The declaration helped set forth a three-pronged approach to address this crisis: prevention, rescue, and treatment. The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is one of our prevention methods and has cut down on physicians prescribing opioids by more than 20 percent. We also have worked on educating physicians on the importance of opioid stewardship, the cautious and judicious prescribing of opioids. For someone who has broken their leg, they need an opioid. But many patients who have received opioids in the past may not need them, and we also must be sure to only prescribe opioids for the length of time necessary.

Our efforts surrounding rescue are led by the use of naloxone. Naloxone is a life-saving medication that reverses an overdose. That is all it does. The Surgeon General of the United States has recently said that all Americans are first responders and should carry naloxone, and we support that. I have signed two standing orders to allow the public to get naloxone without a prescription at their local pharmacy.

The final approach is through treatment. We have been working through a number of avenues to get those with substance use disorder into treatment. Key areas in this effort is the warm handoff from the emergency department to a drug treatment counselor, and the Pennsylvania coordinated Medication Assisted Treatment (PacMAT) efforts at local hospitals, including several in the Harrisburg area. The Department of Human Services also operates more than 45 Centers of Excellence to assist in treating those with substance use disorder.

This crisis has had an effect on our children. Nearly 2,300 children have been born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, an opioid dependency. We have grandparents raising grandchildren because parents were lost to this crisis.

While this crisis is one that will take years to overcome, there are reasons for hope. We have heard from many counties that their opioid deaths are down. In addition, I am an optimistic person. Treatment works, and recovery is possible for those with the disease of addiction.

I look forward to meeting you and speaking further about this topic at the April 28 ‘Turning Crisis into Hope’ event.

Dr. Rachel Levine is the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health. Dr. Levine and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg will visit the Harrisburg JCC on Sunday, April 28th for Jewish Family Service’s program Turning Crisis Into Hope: Opioid, Trauma, and Raising Resilient Children. For more information on tickets and sponsorships, click here.