Attorney General Mark Herring was in Lynchburg earlier this month, part of a statewide tour to draw attention to a health crisis that claimed the lives of more than 1,100 Virginians last year: opioid abuse and addiction.
The attorney general convened a forum of community leaders and those on the frontline locally in the fight against heroin and opioid addiction, choosing to hold it at Virginia Baptist Hospital where the region’s addiction assets are focused.
The significance of that venue choice was not lost on Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Doucette. “I’m in criminal justice, but this is a health issue,” he said at the forum. “It’s probably the most significant health epidemic we’ve suffered through since the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s. It’s that serious.”
Brent McCraw, Centra Health’s director of addiction and recovery services, brought some stark statistics to the forum for Herring and local leaders to mull over. In a research document he’d prepared for Centra officials, McCraw estimates that 44 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses, with two of those deaths in Virginia. Last year, Fairfax County, the state’s most populous county, recorded 80 in 2016, though 60 additional deaths are still undetermined as to cause.
But the problem hits home in Central Virginia, too. The office of the Virginia State Medical Examiner recorded five opioid overdose deaths in Lynchburg in 2016, three each in Amherst and Appomattox counties, six in Campbell County and four in Nelson County.
McCraw pointed out that just under 50 percent of all patients treated in Centra’s addiction program are fighting opioid addiction. And their ages are dropping, too.
“Twenty, 30 years ago, the average of a patient … was maybe 55, 60, and the drug of choice was alcohol,” McCraw said. “Today, we’re admitting patients in their 20s, so the addiction to opiates progresses much faster, so much younger patients are coming to us.”
Opioid addiction, as McCraw and Horizon Behavioral Health CEO Damien Cabezas pointed out, usually begins innocently enough. For example, a person undergoes surgery or experiences a bout of kidney stones and is prescribed a high-powered pain medication, usually opiate-based. Somehow, use of that prescription painkiller triggers something in the body that leads to heroin or opiate addiction, and the downward spiral begins. So what can be done?
First, as Lynchburg’s Doucette said, this isn’t primarily a criminal justice matter. Yes, law enforcement has a role to play in going after doctors who over-prescribe the drugs, knowing — or choosing to ignore — evidence of illicit use. Resources devoted to the epidemic need to be increased and better funded.
Second, education is paramount. Education of doctors and other medical personnel about the dangers of the drugs and the need to closely monitor patients who are prescribed them. Also, education of the general public — families especially — as to the signs of opioid addiction and the need to seek medical intervention quickly.
Third, giving first responders — police, fire and rescue and others in frontline positions — access to a drug that can reverse an overdose: naloxone.
Just last week, Virginia received a $9.75 million federal grant to address the opioid epidemic, but, honestly, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the problem.