COLUMN: Addressing the opioid crisis in NYS

When it comes to the opiate crisis, communities seem to be divided on how to address it.

Last week the Seneca County Board of Supervisors heard an update on the growing usage of illicit drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and others, along with a number of other concerning statistics.

If the Heroin Epidemic is at the top of the proverbial pyramid, then other health issues — like chronic pain, obesity, diabetes, etc. — make up the remainder. Margaret Morse, director of community services in Seneca County, provided a great outline and even some necessary context to the opiate crisis.

Obviously, it’s not a problem unique to Seneca County.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine there are 20.5 million Americans 12 or older that had a substance use disorder in 2015. Of those, 2 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers, and 591,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin.

Context is important because in 2015 Blue Cross Blue Shield said excess medical costs associated with high rates of obesity in the Finger Lakes comes with a $501 million price tag.

As the report bluntly asserted, those who are overweight or obese are at a greater risk for serious medical issues. It doesn’t just mean diabetes, either. Greater risk of falling and injuring oneself. Greater risk of depression. Greater risk of ailments or injuries frequently treated with medications.

The heroin epidemic is decidedly a rural problem — one that everyone living in a rural community has to play a role in addressing. It doesn’t follow the traditional socioeconomic rules of addiction. You know, those textbook examples of what heroin addiction was in the 1970s. There is no junkie in the alley. We’re talking about all walks of life, all levels of education and all levels of access to so-called “pillars” of sustainable life.

Medical professionals have taken steps to ensure that patients are not over-prescribed medications. Steps have been taken to ensure that abuse happens less frequently.

That said, if the opiate crisis is going to be dealt with, then it’s going to take a more “across the board” effort to do so. It needs to be handled directly. People need to understand that it’s real, impacting people they can relate to. That isn’t accomplished through a press release or through updates to a governing body.

Both are incredibly necessary, but that’s not how this problem gets solved, because it’s decidedly a people problem, more than it is a governing or policing problem.

Law enforcement does its best. Governing bodies do their best, oftentimes with limited resources to send to specialists and departments that can help slow the problem.

Morse pointed out at Tuesday’s meeting that solid data on overdose fatalities is difficult to populate. However, the number of ER visits each year due to opioid overdose tells us how serious the problem remains.

Then just a few days later, I read a story in the Democrat & Chronicle called “Obituaries reflect devastating opioid crisis, as families tell truth about lost loved ones.”

Since autopsies are not required under all circumstances, this is the only “reporting” that exists of those overdose fatalities, which can help turn the corner, raising vital awareness.

Statistics sterilize the problem when it’s something that needs to be personalized. People need to understand that addiction, particularly opiate addiction, can strike anyone — old or young, rich or poor.

Perhaps the most-frustrating part of Tuesday’s report came in the 24 hours that followed. The number of people who approached me and said, “I don’t believe it,” in reference to any data that suggested a significant portion of those living in the region are either unhealthy, disabled or dealing with addiction.

In a world filled with fake news, the last thing we need to do is marginalize this addiction crisis or politicize it in any way. That is the very real divide that exists in our communities. We have to tell the story — the real story — and stop letting people who need help slip through the cracks we’ve created.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *