Baltimore health commissioner says businesses can help with opioid epidemic

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen told business leaders Tuesday that they can play a role in fighting the opioid epidemic and offered examples of how they can help.

Speaking at a breakfast briefing sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee, Wen said one thing businesses can do to help reduce the staggering number of overdoses facing the country is to have their employees trained to administer naloxone, the drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

“If you have a defibrillator available, why not also have naloxone?” Wen said. “It could be one of your employees. It could be someone who is a passerby. You have the opportunity to save a life.”

Wen supports getting as many people as possible trained to administer naloxone. In 2015, she issued a blanket prescription for the drug so that every resident in the city could obtain it. Since then, 30,000 people have been trained to administer naloxone and 1,500 lives have been saved by citizens administering the drug, she said.

In addition to urging business owners to keep naloxone available at their businesses, Wen said that businesses can make sure their employer insurance plans offer coverage for evidence-based treatment backed up by scientific research for opioid addiction.

She said medication-assisted treatment — such as the use of methadone or bupenephrine — combined with counseling is considered the best care.

Businesses also can help erase the stigma around drug addiction by spreading the message that it is a health issue and that treatment works, Wen said. She described it as a chronic brain disease, not a moral failing.

State figures show that there were 1,172 deaths from alcohol or drug intoxication statewide in the first half of the year, with the bulk related to opioids. Baltimore had 393 fatal overdoses during that time, the most for any Maryland jurisdiction.

Wen pointed out many initiatives the city has undertaken to try to address the epidemic, including working with hospitals to screen all patients for potential addiction problems and establishing a task force to focus on curbing deaths from fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid often laced with heroin without people’s knowledge.

The city plans to open a stabilization center next year where addicts can go for care rather than a hospital or jail.

But Wen said getting the resources to fight the epidemic has been one of the biggest obstacles. There is not enough money, for instance, to buy naloxone, she said. There are also not enough treatment programs, she said.

In Baltimore, an estimated 21,000 people use heroin. Only 1 in 10 people who need treatment get it, Wen said, citing statistics from the office of the U.S. Surgeon General.

“We as public health officials don’t believe we have seen the peak of this epidemic,” Wen told the crowd. “And we don’t know yet how much worse it’s going to get.”

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