The national opioid addiction crisis has forced Pennsylvania and other states to take more of a public-health approach to the problem, rather than overly emphasizing law enforcement's role in solving it. That needed change in perspective didn't come a moment too soon.
Last year, opioid addiction took 3,500 lives, a jump of 23 percent above 2014's figure, and it is likely to increase again this year. Dependency on drugs related to heroin has affected every strata of the population, including infants being born addicted at a skyrocketing rate.
Part of the blame must be placed on doctors, egged on by drug marketers, who overprescribed opioid-based painkillers for even minor problems like headaches or back pain. Experts estimate that 15 percent of patients prescribed opioids are abusing them. When their prescriptions run out, they move on to street drugs and eventually to heroin.
Gov. Wolf told a joint legislative session last week that he wants swift action on bills requiring physicians to check a state database every time they prescribe an opioid to see which patients may be doctor shopping to get drugs, and to limit painkillers for minors and emergency room patients to a seven-day supply in most cases. The governor also rightly wants to hinge state funding for medical schools on whether they teach opioid prescribing practices.
Two years after bills to create it were passed, Pennsylvania in August became the 49th state to implement a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which will also help determine which doctors are overprescribing opioids. An earlier version of the database only provided information to law enforcement.
The state's new attitude is good, but it shouldn't lead to steps it will regret later. Wolf, for example, also favors legislation requiring insurance companies to cover "abuse-deterrent opioids," which are pills that can't be ground up to snort or inject. But swallowing pills is typically how opioid addiction begins. Similar bills in 20 states appear to help Big Pharma profit from a problem it helped create. A New Jersey version was recently vetoed by Gov. Christie; Wolf should reconsider his support too.
Some Pennsylvania bills have already been voted out of committees or passed by at least one chamber. The legislature probably won't complete its work before breaking to get out on the campaign trail prior to the Nov. 8 election. But the lawmakers' efforts thus far are a pleasant contrast to the partisan budget confrontations of the recent past.
Fighting opioid abuse seems to be an issue both sides can agree on. The current state budget includes increased funding to treat 11,000 more addicts. It is gratifying to see Pennsylvania and other states turn from the "crack wars" mentality of the past, which too often put jailing addicts above helping them.