Pennsylvania ranks in the top 10 states in per capita heroin and opioid deaths, yet is one of the weakest when it comes to regulating prescription drugs.
Improving that is just one of many reforms sought by advocates who spent four hours Tuesday morning testifying before state lawmakers.
The session at Reading Area Community College in Berks County is one in a statewide series on heroin and opioid deaths run by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
More than 3,000 Pennsylvanians have died from heroin and multi-drug deaths since 2009, according to the Pennsylvania Coroner’s Assocation four-year report and update.
That’s moved judges, doctors, parents, police, teachers, law enforcement officials, treatment experts and others to push a variety of agendas, as varied as the factors involved in a complex issue like addiction.
“This isn’t news,” said Phil Bauer, who lost his son Mark to an overdose nearly a decade ago.
Prescription opiates can lead to heroin use. But it never got to that point for Mark.
Bauer and his wife found their son dead with a bag of pills beside him a week before his high school graduation. The coroner later told them he had a mix of amphetamines, oxycodone and acetaminophen in his system.
He believes the pills came from a coworker at Mark’s part-time job. He’ll never know for sure.
“Someone who’s never done drugs would probably be afraid of heroin, that’s probably not their starting point. But prescription drugs, these are opiates – and when misused they’re just as dangerous as heroin,” Bauer says.
Bauer’s advocacy since then has taken him to 10 states and landed him before Congress and the FDA. His latest endeavor is getting lawmakers in his home state – the Bauers live in York – to more strictly regulate prescription drugs.
One bill would expand the Commonwealth’s existing monitoring database by tracking all classes of drugs and allowing pharmacists and healthcare providers who write prescriptions to access the database.
One might expect that to be the case already.
It is in 36 of 37 states on the list kept by the Prescription Monitoring Program Database Training and Technical Assistance Center.
Pennsylvania is the sole exception.
Pennsylvania’s system is the most limited, with its focus on Schedule II drugs and law enforcement-only access, according to Chad Garner, who runs Ohio’s program and sits on the Alliance of States with Prescription Monitoring Programs board.
The 11 states without databases have legislation in place to set it up. All of them provide for systems accessible to health care professionals, Garner said.
The bill that would change all of that in Pennsylvania cleared the state Senate in May, but the House left for the summer without taking it up.
“The delay in this, I believe, has cost lives,” Bauer says.
State Sen. Scott Wagner blames lobbyists for the sluggish progression.
“The drug lobby is very large in Harrisburg,” Wagner says.
The ACLU also has concerns about expanding access to confidential information.
The Center’s Director Barry Denk says he’ll invite pharmaceutical industry representatives to future forums in Cambria and Centre counties. State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, says he wants to bring in people running the state’s colleges and universities as well.
Dr. Gregory Sorensen, Reading Health System’s Chief Medical Officer, says the multi-disciplinary approach is really the only one that might work.
Others called Tuesday for increasing mandatory insurance coverage minimums for addiction treatment, expanding access to naloxone or other emergency overdose treatments, and including stress management in public education curricula.
Sorensen says the youngest victim of the 30 heroin and prescription overdose deaths so far this year in Reading was 13 years old.
But Sorensen also recalls prescription drug abuse decades ago by a fellow resident, and later a surgeon who was his colleague.
“It was very apparent early in my career that this is a major problem that spans socioeconomic, and knowledge categories,” Sorensen says.