According to an analytical study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, drug overdose deaths in the state of Pennsylvania increased nearly 14-fold between 1979 and 2014, with the highest rates among females and white people aged 35-44. The findings of this first-of-its-kind study also point to counties surrounding Philadelphia, as well as counties in southwestern and northeastern Pennsylvania as the ones confronting with the highest overdose death rates in the state. In Pennsylvania, where the prescription opioid and heroin abuse has already spread to suburban and rural communities, drug overdoses claimed the lives of 2,500 people in 2014 and 3,300 people in 2015.
Aimed at assisting law enforcement and health officials in delivering life-saving intervention to the most vulnerable, the study showed that in Pennsylvania the overdose mortality rates in women saw a more dramatic increase than the death rates in men. The study's co-author, epidemiologist Jeanine M. Buchanich, PhD explained that the spike in female mortality may be caused by a phenomenon called telescoping, where women get addicted much faster to larger doses of opioids and are thus more prone to overdose on them.
With drug overdose as the leading cause of accidental death in the nation and thus surpassing traffic and gun fatalities, the opiate abuse epidemic has become quite a rare point of bipartisan agreement. Earlier this year, Governor Tom Wolf sought $34 million that, combined with federal funding, would allow Pennsylvania to create a total of 50 Opioid Use Disorder Centers of Excellence. According to Gov. Wolf's spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan, in the final $31.4 billion spending plan agreed to by the legislature late last month, Pennsylvania is slated to receive $10 million to dedicate to these centers, letting the state claim $5.4 million in federal funding.
Although they are not physical treatment facilities per se, the Centers of Excellence are intended to coordinate specialized teams that will provide a wide range of treatment services to Medicaid patients who enter the healthcare system. The new funding will allow the state to establish 20 Centers of Excellence throughout Pennsylvania and provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to 4,500 new patients with opioid use disorders.
Gov. Wolf has already identified programs aimed at combating the opioid crisis as his top priority, along with approving a budget that matches all spending with stable revenue; so far, though, the legislature has not agreed on a revenue package. The Pennsylvania state budget allocates an additional $5 million to existing MAT programs, thus bringing the total new investment in opiate addiction programs to $20.4 million in 2017.
New state initiatives aimed at combating opiate abuse and overdose deaths require, among others, improved monitoring of opioid prescriptions and " warm handoffs", which means that patients who seek emergency room services for drug-related issues will be automatically connected with a treatment provider upon release. Pennsylvania has also placed 400 prescription opiate take-back boxes all across the state to cut down on the excess supply of potent prescription pain relievers in residents' medicine cabinets.
Recognizing the need to expand the availability of the opiate overdose reversal medicine naloxone (Narcan), Gov. Wolf signed a standing order for naloxone last year, thus proving access to the life-saving prescription medicine for the entire state. Wolf has also attended 27 roundtable discussions across the state to find more solutions to the opioid epidemic. The political urgency around the opioid crisis has been spurred by the magnitude of the epidemic in the state and the nation as well as the changing perceptions about who is suffering from an opioid use disorder. While heroin used to be linked to the inner city and minority communities, today 90% of new heroin users are white, following what an addiction expert called the "heroin prep school" of prescription opioids.