Health policy and law enforcement leaders from six central Appalachian states and the federal government gathered at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise Wednesday to share thoughts about the growing problem of opioid and heroin abuse and its impact on the nation and Appalachia in particular.
The primary message that permeated the morning session of the Appalachian Opioid Summit was that prescription drug abuse has no respect for geographical or political borders. They agreed that the epidemic of drug addiction is destroying families, communities, and that neighboring states must act as a unit if change is to occur. Some speakers at the conference agreed that county, state and political boundaries are friends to substance abuse because of the difficulties the geographical lines bring to the issue.
Dr. Bill Hazel, Virginia secretary of health and human resources, said he sees the devastation that substance abuse has on individuals, families, the economy and the community. There are really no boundaries, he told the crowd, because the problem is everywhere. He urged those attending to spread what they learn at the summit to others in their home states as a way to address the problem.
Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security in Virginia, said substance abuse has reached a crisis of epic proportions, and he warned that law enforcement alone cannot “arrest the problem away” from communities. A holistic approach must be adopted to combat substance abuse, he told the crowd.
A sharp focus of the summit is to develop strategies to work across borders to deal with substance abuse and the many problems the addiction creates. One example cited was the problems that occur when deciding which agencies would step in to help if a baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome was born in a Virginia hospital to a mother who lives in Tennessee. The growing need for heightened prescription monitoring program was also discussed with an eye toward erasing geographical and political borders.
Nancy Hale, a retired Kentucky teacher who works with Operation UNITE, an initiative launched in 2003 by Rep. Hal Rogers as a response to substance abuse, spoke of the ways communities in the commonwealth worked together to battle the problem. Hale said one eastern Kentucky county with a population of 16,000 was losing one person a week to drug overdose or related problems. The issue grew to the level that every person in the area knew someone who was a victim of substance abuse, she said.
“It brought it home,” Hale said. “We’ve seen the economic impact on the region.”
According to Hale, a Wal-Mart Supercenter was built in a Kentucky community, but 85 of the first 100 potential employees failed a drug test. Employees in other companies, she said, often lose productivity because of a family member who is addicted to drugs.
“We know the impact it has on families and children,” Hale added.
Operation UNITE uses a three-pronged, comprehensive approach to fight substance abuse in Kentucky. Hale said the organizations uses undercover narcotics investigators, treatment for substance abusers, and support to families and friends of substance abusers to fight the problem. The most important aspect is for a community to come together and say enough is enough when it comes to illegal narcotics, she said.
“Local problems call for local solutions,” Hale said, adding that substance abuse issues in a county spread to neighboring counties, even those in other states. “We are all in this together. The most motivated people have a personal connection to substance abuse.”
In addition to gathering representatives from all sectors in a community to start coalitions to fight substance abuse, Hale said the medical community must be brought in early in the process.
“The medical community has been part of the problem so they should be part of the solution,” Hale said.
The two-day summit, held in the David J. Prior Center, will conclude on Thursday.