We must remain vigilant
My first experience with the Lycoming County addiction treatment system came in 2015 shortly after I became the communications director for the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. I was invited to share my family’s story of addiction at a graduation ceremony of President Judge Nancy Butts’ drug court. Much of the commonwealth was just beginning to grasp the reality that we were in an opioid overdose death epidemic. In 2015, 25 people died of drug overdose in Lycoming County. Statewide, 3,383 died from overdose.
Though these numbers were alarming, what was to come in the next two years was devastating. In 2016 and 2017, overdose deaths increased in Lycoming County to 34 and 38, respectively. Statewide, drug overdose deaths climbed to 5,559 in 2017, according to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Today, the hard work Lycoming County has done to address the epidemic is paying off, as is much of the commonwealth’s work. There were an estimated 4,267 deaths statewide in 2018, a 23-percent drop. In Lycoming County, 27 died in 2018, a 29-percent reduction over 2017.
It’s difficult to say with certainty what has led to the decrease, but there are some obvious factors. The widespread distribution of and access to naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, has saved countless lives. The state’s prescription drug monitoring program has reduced the number of addictive narcotic prescriptions that, for many, marked the beginning of their addiction. Government’s push to expand access to evidence-based medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is keeping those with the disease of addiction alive and putting them on a path to recovery.
These successes, as hopeful as they are, should not lull us into a false sense that the crisis is over. A recent headline in a large daily newspaper in western Pennsylvania read, “Does the overdose plunge mean the epidemic is over?” The answer is a resounding no.
Although fewer people may be dying, there is nothing to indicate that fewer people are using drugs and addicted. Easy access to evidence-based, life-saving treatment must continue to expand. Having treatment available when and where people are ready to accept it, sometimes simply by expanding the number of days and hours that people can access it, is one simple way.
Counseling must be a primary tool to treat addiction, but it cannot be the only one. Leading addiction treatment providers are making counseling and medication available under one roof at one licensed location through trained addiction specialists. Anything short of this should be unacceptable to those referring patients to treatment, those who pay for it, and those who need treatment and their families.
That day in Judge Butts’ courtroom, I was honored to be part of a celebration of recovery from the disease of addiction. I told a story of great sadness but also of hope and recovery. Like many families in Lycoming County and Williamsport, my brothers and I were raised with values, by hard-working parents who provided us with many opportunities that should have led to a life of success for all of us. But it didn’t end up that way. My brother Todd, a college graduate, died in 2005 at 28 from a heroin overdose, and my 25-year-old brother Josh, in 2007, also died of a drug overdose. In 2012, as the last living child of my parents, I entered treatment for my own addiction to opioids. Today, more than seven years later, I identify as a person in long-term recovery from addiction.
My family’s story is a cautionary tale. I believe that if I continue to do the things that I have done during those seven years, I will continue to live a wonderful life of recovery. If I do not, I am in danger of returning to my previous life, one marked by constant hopelessness, fear and desperation. And if that happens, there are no guarantees I can recover. I could end up dead like my brothers. I cannot take my foot off the gas, so to speak.
The collection of champions working to address this epidemic — treatment providers, government, health systems and insurers, to name a few — should not take their collective foot off the gas, either. We don’t know if 2018 is an anomaly or the beginning of a downward trend. We do know that even with the reduction in overdose deaths in 2018, that number is still much higher than the number of deaths in 2015, when the alarms began sounding.
We’re proud to be part of Lycoming County’s strong efforts to reduce drug overdose deaths and open the door to a greater life of recovery for so many. But we can’t rest on our laurels. As a partner with this community, we stand ready to continue to work collaboratively and creatively to save even more lives.
Jason Snyder is the regional director of strategic partnerships for Pinnacle Treatment Centers, which owns and operates 13 community-based outpatient addiction treatment programs in the state. Those include Williamsport Family Medical Center.