I have seen firsthand the destruction of addiction. Alcoholism has hit my family, close friends, and relatives, causing heartbreak and snatching away lives, relationships, and careers.
My family and I aren't alone. An addiction epidemic is taking hold throughout Pennsylvania and the country as more people are turning from prescribed painkillers to the cheaper alternative of heroin.
Pennsylvania has moved from 14th to ninth among the states in drug overdose deaths per capita. Recent headlines highlighted the horrific reality that young men in Bucks County are dying from overdoses at a greater rate than anywhere in the country.
In August, Washington County made national headlines when eight overdoses took place in the short span of 70 minutes. In 24 hours, there were a total of 18 overdoses that resulted in the deaths of three people.
In 2014, 119 people died in Erie County as a result of heroin.
Last year, the Reading Eagle named heroin the "Local Newsmaker of the Year" as Berks County saw heroin overdoses rise for a fourth consecutive year to double the number in 2010.
In less than a week, Delaware County saw a total of nine heroin-related overdoses.
Heroin respects no borders. It does not discriminate. It knows no race or ethnicity. It is a drug that is affecting families of all incomes and backgrounds in Pennsylvania.
The heroin crisis traces its roots to prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Doctors began prescribing these narcotics to manage pain, but as the pills ran out, people turned to a cheaper option - heroin. The average cost of a bag of heroin is $10 and sometimes even cheaper.
We need to fundamentally change our approach in dealing with this heroin epidemic - which means treating it as a health issue, not simply as a criminal justice issue. We need to shift away from locking up heroin abusers and instead move them into treatment services to combat their addiction. This is not only the most compassionate way to tackle this issue; it is the most effective way to do so.
First, we need increased access to mental-health resources under the Affordable Care Act, and we must ensure that health insurance is fully covering substance abuse and behavioral disorders. Ensuring access to treatment for individuals struggling with opioid or heroin addiction will be an important component of any effort to address substance abuse.
We need to pass two pieces of legislation introduced by Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Ed Markey (D., Mass.) that would expand funding for states and counties to pay for treatment of addicts and allow medical professionals increased access to buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opiate addicts.
More must also be done to increase the preparedness of first responders, such as giving them access to naloxone, also called Narcan, to administer to those experiencing an overdose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Narcan has saved more than 26,000 lives in the United States. With Gov. Wolf's leadership, state troopers now carry and have administered Narcan to save lives.
Lastly, we need to prevent overprescription of painkillers. A team approach, in which the patient works with the prescribing doctor, a mental-health provider, and an addiction specialist to monitor progress, makes sense. This way, pain is effectively managed and narcotics use is diminished as the patient returns to health.
Addiction is a costly and all-consuming disease that can control those closest to us. It is time to take immediate steps to help families and their loved ones fight the heroin epidemic sweeping the state.
Mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, and sisters across the commonwealth and country are struggling every day to save loved ones trapped in addiction's death grip. Let's act now - decisively and effectively - to help and to heal.