Editor’s Note: U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, is the co-founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Rep. Rogers: Lack of easy answers no excuse for lack of action on opioid addiction
He says local and holistic approaches, plus proposed legislation, hold promise for future
While the abuse of prescription medications silently took hold of rural communities in Appalachia over a decade ago, today it is difficult to imagine a single town in the United States that has eluded the devastating grasp of opioid addiction. Across the country, people from all walks of life – from cops to public health officials to mourning parents – are struggling to bring an end to opioid-induced overdoses and stop the influx of fentanyl-laced heroin from China that has proven to be too powerful for even long-time abusers.
As we’ve sought out that silver bullet to solve this unique problem, the sad reality is that the scope of the problem has only grown – and now we’re losing 78 people per day to this senseless and preventable epidemic. That is because no silver bullet exists to stem the tide of prescription drug abuse in America.
The lack of any easy solution requires all of us to treat the opioid crisis as a nonpartisan issue and adopt an “all hands on deck” approach. That is why I am proud that my colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives have made it a priority to respond to this crisis. In an effort to cast a wide net on the epidemic, we are voting this week on a comprehensive package of more than a dozen opioid-related bills to help save lives and prevent addiction from directly or indirectly harming our loved ones.
In the early 2000s, the overwhelming levels of opioid addiction in southern and eastern Kentucky led the authors of a newspaper expose entitled “Prescription for Pain” to identify us as the per capita painkiller capital of the world. We knew we had to do something, so we gathered individuals from all disciplines and backgrounds – teachers, preachers, parents, judges, cops, doctors, pharmacists, community leaders, and others – to exchange dialogue and move quickly to address the staggering problem confronting our communities.
These meetings culminated in the launch of a nonprofit organization called Operation UNITE, short for unlawful narcotics investigations treatment and education. The name reflects UNITE’s holistic, multidisciplinary strategy to address opioid addiction and abuse. Since 2003, UNITE has removed $12.3 million worth of drugs from the streets, provided free treatment vouchers to nearly 4,000 low-income individuals struggling with addiction, helped establish drug courts in every county in our region, organized community coalitions to rally local prevention efforts, and established UNITE Clubs in 282 schools while launching innovative educational anti-drug programs that have now reached more than 100,000 students.
Operation UNITE’s successes have led me to believe that a collaborative, multipronged strategy – driven by the families, employers, medical providers, insurers and law enforcement officers who are confronting this challenge daily – will be required to beat back this scourge in communities all around America.
Because its approach shows such promise, Operation UNITE took its model to the national stage with the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. This year’s Rx Summit in Atlanta drew 2,000 attendees from 49 states and four foreign countries. The diversity of the keynote speakers at this event is a strong testimony that federal policymakers should replicate UNITE’s holistic, community-driven strategy. Participants included leaders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as well as the surgeon general, the White House drug czar, the secretary of agriculture, the DEA administrator, and even President Obama.
It will require dedication, innovation and buy-in from the full spectrum of federal leaders to address the challenge of opioid addiction. The legislation my colleagues and I are proposing specifically focuses on nine areas: prevention, treatment, prescribing practices, women and children, recovery, law enforcement, veterans, criminal justice and overdose reversal. I am confident that, when passed into law, these bills will make an immediate and measurable impact in our communities.
They must make an impact, because the stakes are too high. Ultimately, our mission must be driven by hope for our upcoming generations. Several years ago, at the Harlan County Boys and Girls Club, I met some young people who had witnessed far more grief and pain than most adults will ever endure. In a short span of six weeks, they told me, 13 students at the club lost a parent to a drug overdose – 11 watched helplessly as their mom or dad died. The club immediately initiated grief counseling, a service that hadn’t been needed before.
Today, the club director, Kateena Hayes, reports visible progress. Some of those students are now graduating from high school or working, while the younger ones still rely on club services after school. Most importantly, she said no students have lost a parent to a drug overdose in the last two years, even as participation has doubled. She credits the good news to local efforts of Operation UNITE and the increased awareness and resources that have been provided in the community.
Ending addiction nationwide may not be realistic goal, but together, we can certainly save lives and restore hope in every community.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, is the co-founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse and the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.