Pennsylvania will serve as the first testing ground for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiative to combat the opioid epidemic — with the commonwealth to receive the first $10 million of $50 million targeted to help reduce overdose deaths in 10 states.
Pennsylvania's overdose death rate is more than double the national average. Bloomberg, who visited Philadelphia with Gov. Wolf on Friday to meet with people struggling with addiction here, suggested the state can help "lay the groundwork for more effective action" to combat the overdose epidemic around the country.
It's unclear how the state plans to spend the money, which will be handed out over three years, according to Bloomberg Philanthropies, the former mayor's charitable arm.
Staffers from Bloomberg and "partner organizations" including Vital Strategies, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will embed in state and local agencies to come up with strategies to reduce the death rate — and to identify where treatment and prevention programs are still falling short.
But the states themselves will largely decide how to spend the funds, the organization said in a statement.
(The money will likely not be spent on a supervised-injection site, the most controversial proposal that Philadelphia has supported to reduce the death rate. While city officials have said they'd allow a privately funded site to open, Wolf on Friday said he didn't support a site where people could inject drugs under medical supervision and be revived if they overdose; the governor said he would rather the state focus on other harm-reduction methods.)
The announcement came a day after the CDC confirmed that more than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses around the country in 2017, the worst year on record. Pennsylvania logged 5,456 overdose deaths last year. Here, 1,217 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia alone.
That's because fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, has contaminated almost all of Philadelphia's heroin supply. Fentanyl was present in 84 percent of Philadelphia's fatal overdoses last year, and in 67 percent of the state's.
Local and state officials said Friday afternoon they welcome the support. Wolf said he was "deeply grateful" for Bloomberg's contribution and that the epidemic requires an "all-hands-on-deck approach."
Philadelphia officials said they planned to apply for all they could get from the new initiative. The city has the worst overdose death rate of any major U.S. city.
"We will take any funding, given the impact the crisis has had on our city," said Alicia Taylor, the communications director for the city's health and human services departments.
Bloomberg announced his opioids initiative Friday at the Bloomberg American Health Summit in Washington before coming to Philadelphia at Wolf's invitation.
Here, he spoke with students at the state's only high school for teenagers in recovery, the Bridgeway School in Holmesburg. "We just met with a bunch of students and we had a chance to listen to them; what they were addicted to, how they became addicted, and why they've come here to turn their lives around," Bloomberg said. "As an adult, it tears your heart out."
The investment follows reports that the life expectancy rate in the United States has declined for the last three years due to a record number of drug and opioid deaths.
"We are experiencing a national crisis. For the first time since World War I, life expectancy in the U.S. has declined over the past three years — and opioids are a big reason why," Bloomberg said Friday. "We cannot sit by and allow this alarming trend to continue — not when so many Americans are being killed in what should be the prime of their lives."