A blueprint for stemming overdose deaths in Maryland

If a plane crashed every day in America, killing everyone on board, we would be talking of little else. Americans would react to the horror with a sincere desire to identify the causes of the problem and deliver solutions. It’s how we tend to respond to preventable tragedies.

The equivalent of those plane crashes is happening today as overdoses have risen to become the leading cause of death for those under 50, killing 174 people every day in America — nearly 64,000 of them in 2016, enough to empty the entire population of Frederick, our state’s second largest city.

The numbers are stark. Even more tragic to remember, every one of them represents a life that had tremendous value, and a newly empty seat at someone’s dinner table.

Maryland has been among the states hit hardest by this epidemic. We lost over 2,000 people in 2016.

As Baltimore City’s former director of Opioid Overdose Prevention, I have met too many of the family members left behind. I have also had the opportunity to meet people from all over our state who are fighting to make a difference. Even as we grieve our losses, we must also remember that tens of thousands of our friends, neighbors and family members continue to need help.

The Addiction Policy Forum, for which I’m the vice president of state affairs, is a partnership of organizations, policymakers and stakeholders whose mission is to ensure that help exists for the millions of patients and families struggling with addiction. This week, we released a blueprint for Maryland to implement a comprehensive response to addiction. With input from dozens of Maryland experts, providers, patients and family members, we identified strategies and policy changes to address key areas in our state’s response to addiction. These include helping families in crisis, expanding treatment, preventing addiction and expanding programs that have been shown to work in our communities.

Among other suggestions, the blueprint recommends that Maryland ensure every resident has access to treatment and crisis services that are just a mouse click or a phone call away. Our Addiction Resource Center (at www.addictionresourcecenter.org and Addiction Resource Line at 833-301-HELP) are two tools that support patients and families and can also be used by health care professionals, social workers and counselors to help guide patients and their families to the services and support they need.

Of course, for any of this to work, people need access to a system of care that covers all kinds of treatment and handles all levels of severity. In the best of worlds, health care providers and the addiction treatment system would closely coordinate to offer complete solutions for patients. There has been great work to integrate addiction treatment into emergency departments in Baltimore City and other parts of the state. These efforts should be applauded and expanded.

Because no segment of society is free of addiction and those affected are so diverse, we also need to offer a variety of access points for treatment. Maryland should expand Anne Arundel County’s Safe Stations to other jurisdictions so fire and police stations can be entry points into treatment.

Overall, the state should assess its programs to better understand both their successes and failures, always focusing on usefulness and accessibility. We should not be afraid to try new ideas or to learn from other communities. Expanding effective services, fixing weaker ones and piloting new approaches will only make us better.

Finally, we shouldn’t overlook addiction prevention. We have to build up the resiliency and coping skills of our young people. Research shows that the best way to prevent substance use disorders is to delay the age when people start using drugs and alcohol. It is particularly critical to do so while the adolescent brain is developing.

With special attention to school programs, the state should conduct a scan to identify the prevention and early intervention programs available across the state. Programs should be assessed for use of evidence-based practices and gaps should be eliminated.

These are just a few of the recommendations we are making, and it’s clear that any set of solutions has many challenges and many variations. But so does addiction. It’s only by addressing the complexities with a comprehensive plan that we can hope to turn the tide of addiction in Maryland.

Mark O’Brien (mobrien@addictionpolicy.org) is Addiction Policy Forum’s vice president of state affairs.

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