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Baltimore health commissioner talks to Congress about opioid addiction

Dr. Leana Wen takes her message about opioid addiction to Congress.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen testified Tuesday before a Senate panel on health about what federal officials could do to help stem opioid addictions afflicting cities around the nation.

Wen called on the members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to make treatment more accessible by allowing states more freedom to innovate ways to treat addiction, monitor and regulate the price of the overdose antidote naloxone and push for an opioid awareness campaign that defines the problem as a health one.

Only 11 percent of addicts get treatment, and Wen told the panel that the federal government has a role in improving the number.

Baltimore has stepped up its efforts:

City officials have expanded use of the naloxone, training more than 7,000 first responders, family member and other in its use. The city also has launched a hotline to replace disparate public lines so people in crisis can get information and referrals for treatment.

And Baltimore has won a $3.6 million in funding for a community-based stabilization center for those who are intoxicated to go for medical and social services. They would go there instead of the hospital or jail, potentially saving those systems money. The city still needs to raise operating funds for the center.

Officials also have worked to reduce stigma surrounding addiction. Public education campaigns, called DontDie.Org and Bmore in Control, talk about addiction as a disease and how communities can prevent it and save lives, Wen said.

City officials also have reached out to doctors to discuss over-prescribing and inconsistent monitoring of those using opioid pain medications. There were 259 million prescriptions written for opioid in 2014, enough for every American adult.

More than 25,000 Americans die each year from opioid overdose, quadrupling between 2002 and 2013, Wen said. There were 303 drug and alcohol overdose deaths in Baltimore in 2014, up from 246 the year before.

“In Baltimore we continue to make progress with bold ideas and innovative strategies as we seek to change the face of Baltimore from the ‘heroin capital’ to becoming the center of addiction recovery,” Wen said in the testimony. “While we are glad to share the lessons we have learned, we need increased support from our dedicated partners in Congress to combat opioid addiction through public health approaches so that we can save lives, provide the treatment people need, and eliminate stigma behind the disease of addiction.”

After the testimony, Wen said Senators were receptive to her message and suggestions. She also trained Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, in how to use naloxone.

That addiction is a disease that has spread beyond the inner cities and is in need of attention and resources, "is a premise everyone seems to accept," Wen said.

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