Overdose deaths rise in Pa., N.J.
Both states now taking action against opioids
New Jersey and Pennsylvania have started taking more aggressive action to prevent drug overdoses.
New federal statistics suggest that the action is overdue. Both states had among the biggest increases in overdose deaths nationally between 2010 and 2012, even as mortality appears to have leveled off in some other parts of the country.
During that period, New Jersey's drug fatality rate rose 40 percent, the second-biggest increase after Alaska's, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Because of that surge, New Jersey's ranking in drug-death rates soared from 41st in 2010 to 18th.
The new statistics predate New Jersey's most recent moves to attack the problem. Several months ago, it changed state law to encourage people who witness an overdose to call 911 without fear of arrest. It also permitted first responders, family, and friends to carry medication that can quickly reverse an overdose due to heroin or opioid prescription painkillers. Families and police around the state have since reported more than 230 "saves," according to the Drug Policy Alliance, including 47 in Camden.
New Jersey, unlike Pennsylvania, has long had other deterrents in place. It has a prescription drug monitoring program that enables physicians to check a database to see whether their patients are "doctor-shopping" for narcotics. The state also limits doctors' ability to dispense drugs directly to patients, reducing their financial incentive to prescribe more drugs.
Playing catch-up, the Pennsylvania legislature on Monday sent Gov. Corbett a bill to set up a drug monitoring database, making Pennsylvania the 49th state to create such a program. It also gave final passage to legislation that would limit physician dispensing.
Pennsylvania's drug-fatality rate - well above the national average for years - rose 23 percent between 2010 and 2012, mostly in the first year. The state ranked eighth nationally in drug death rates in 2012 and had 2,365 fatalities.
The new drug monitoring database will take time to set up and is not expected to show results for years.
Three weeks ago, Corbett signed a law to encourage bystanders to call 911 and to make the overdose-reversal medication naloxone (brand name Narcan) available to families and first responders. The law takes effect at the end of November.
"We badly needed both of them," said Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania. "People are dying."
The law leaves ambulance companies and other local organizations to decide whether to provide the so-called rescue drug and how to publicize and pay for it.
Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said he had already bought more than 800 doses - two for every patrol car in the county - using forfeited drug money. Training police officers to use it, he said, will likely take 15 to 30 minutes. He says he hopes to have Narcan on the street by Dec. 1.
"This is a nasal spray," Whelan said. "All the officers are doing is spraying the dose. Wait one to two minutes. If the person is not coming back into consciousness in that period of time, they are asked to give a second dose."
In Philadelphia, which has the most overdoses in the state, the Police Department has not yet decided whether to equip its officers. "It is seriously being considered," spokeswoman Christine O'Brien said.
Narcan is routinely used in hospital emergency rooms; the main adverse effect is withdrawal symptoms. Philadelphia EMTs have administered the injectable version thousands of times.
The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, a recovery-services group, plans to offer Narcan training to families and friends in all five area counties.
"You can think of this in terms of a lifesaving tool that is going to make a difference with an individual," said Temple University law professor Scott Burris, director of the Public Health Law Research project.
Whether it will make a difference in drug overdose rates at the state or national level, he said, "is a harder question."
Still harder, he said, is the issue of treatment. In the United States, treatment is chronically underfunded and not considered part of the health-care system.
Tom McLellan, board chairman of Philadelphia's Treatment Research Institute, tried to put the issue in perspective.
"Three people in America have been compromised by Ebola," he said. "The public wants it solved, the politicians want it," he said, and they are clamoring for ways to safeguard the borders, prevent transmission, treat the infected.
"We could [take action] with drug abuse," McLellan said. "We haven't had the political will to do that yet."