BLOG: Combatting Pennsylvania’s Overdose Epidemic

By: Gary Tennis, Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs

January 27, 2016

Pennsylvania is currently witnessing the worst health care crisis in our lifetime: drug abuse, addiction, overdoses, and overdose deaths. In 2014, we experienced the worst year yet of overdoses, with an unprecedented 2,500 overdose deaths. Nationwide, a record 47,000 died of drug overdoses in 2014.

Alarmingly, today, four of five people addicted to heroin first used prescription opioids. At least seven Pennsylvanians die every day from drug overdose, and one in four Pennsylvania families are suffering with addiction.


If not for the commitment of Governor Tom Wolf and the work of the Pennsylvania Departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), Health (DOH), Human Services (DHS), and other agencies, the story of 2015 would be even more tragic.

Led by Governor Wolf, Pennsylvania’s response to the epidemic in 2015 was strong.

Our first priority: save lives.

To stem the rising tide of overdose deaths, Physician General Rachel Levine signed two standing orders that made naloxone, a medication that safely reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, available initially to all first responders and later to all Pennsylvanians. In addition, Governor Wolf ordered in April 2015 all Pennsylvania State Police vehicles to be equipped with naloxone.


Seeing the police as a key partner in the effort to save lives and knowing that municipal police are first on the scene of a drug overdose more than 70 percent of the time, DDAP urgently worked in 2015 to equip police with naloxone. Collaborating with health insurers from across the commonwealth, the department raised more than $500,000 to provide no-cost naloxone to police. To date, police have reversed nearly 600 overdoses.

To address the overprescribing catastrophe at its root, DDAP in 2015 engineered several initiatives.

DDAP and DOH began work with the Pennsylvania Medical Society to develop continuing education programs to help healthcare providers better understand addiction, intervention and treatment. In collaboration with Pennsylvania’s medical school deans, the departments are working to ensure medical school students are properly trained about responsible pain prescribing and how to identify and help those suffering with addiction.


We’ve worked to provide communities flooded with prescription drugs with a mechanism to safely remove those unused medications.

Pennsylvania’s Prescription Drug Take-Back Program focuses on preventing diversion and abuse of prescription drugs by helping communities properly dispose of unused prescriptions. With the help of the Pennsylvania National Guard and the Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigations, the partnership took back and destroyed approximately 40,000 pounds of prescription drugs in 2015. The number of police stations across Pennsylvania where drug take-back boxes are located climbed to more than 400.

Yet for all the lives saved, much work remains.

Access to all treatment modalities must be expanded. Governor Wolf’s proposed budget includes an additional $5 million for DDAP, which will improve intervention strategies, increase the use of best practices, and increase access to treatment. Medicaid expansion also creates new resources for treatment that did not exist before.

With greater access, we must work to ensure overdose survivors are taken directly to licensed drug and alcohol treatment to immediately begin the recovery process.


We must continue attacking the problem at its roots. DOH and DDAP plan to issue three more sets of opioid prescribing guidelines this year, in addition to already-published guidelines developed under DDAP’s leadership. The guidelines give healthcare providers direction for safe and effective pain relief practices, with greater emphasis on non-opioid therapies and greater caution to prevent addiction and diversion.

And perhaps above all, we must continue to fight the shame, hopelessness and stigma that keep our addicted friends and family members in denial and deter them from seeking help. More than 23 million people in the United States are living wonderful lives of recovery from the disease of addiction. We must continue to tell their stories and learn from them.

Although we may look at 2015 as a shameful and bleak milestone on a decades-long path of overprescribing addictive pain medication, it will also be remembered as the year when so many individuals, agencies and organizations – from the top levels of state government to grassroots advocacy groups – galvanized into powerful action against the overdose death epidemic.


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