Focusing on prevention and creating a better health care model to stop overprescribing opioids is key to fighting the "huge crisis" of heroin and opioid abuse that continues unabated nationwide, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said during a visit to Edgewood Monday.
Cardin, who was joined by U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, held a roundtable discussion on the problem with more than 20 members of the Harford County Sheriff's Office HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort) group, at the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct station.
"The overprescribing of opioids is a matter that needs our national attention, and the medical community must do a better job on the prescriptions of opioids," Cardin said, calling opioid use an issue that is "growing by astronomical numbers" and asking leaders in Harford about their experience and what tools they need.
"Our congressional delegation is totally united in our fight against the opioid crisis and heroin crisis we have in our community. This is not a partisan issue and it's not an issue that is unique to any one geographical area," Cardin told the group. "The number of pills that are out on the streets are just beyond comprehension, as to how they got out there. They are there. The estimates in Maryland is that we have over 200,000 Marylanders who are misusing opioids, and 21,000 are under the age of 17, using painkillers and getting addicted on them and then graduating to heroin."
Although heroin is not a new problem, "what's different now is, we are seeing an easy route for people to become addicted," via the mass production of synthetic pills, Cardin said, adding he is meeting with the Mexican foreign minister about the issue this week.
Sheriff's Office Capt. Lee Dunbar, who heads a county task force on drug related crime, and Sheriff's Office's police operations chief Maj. William Davis gave an overview of the continued toll of heroin-related overdoses, whose numbers have climbed to more than 90 so far this year in Harford, with at least 17 fatalities as of last week. The HOPE group helped create a card with resources that is distributed to those struggling with addiction, raising awareness in the community and distributing the anti-opioid drugs Narcan and Vivitrol, Dunbar and Davis noted.
Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler was unable to attend because of illness.
Erik Robey, of the Sheriff's Office, said the agency is still trying to work with hospitals to get statistical information on those who come in for overdoses. Cardin said another major problem is the lack of follow-up in hospitals when someone overdoses.
"One of the things we're looking at is either a collaborative or integrated care model where you actually have those services provided, reimbursed by the health care system," he said about community resources for addiction, explaining that every demonstration has shown that a collaborative-care model saves money. "Today, the health care system won't reimburse the emergency rooms or primary care facilities."
Cardin noted Harford County Executive Barry Glassman's commitment to the problem, saying: "The first time we met, after he was elected county executive, this is the first issue he mentioned, the heroin epidemic and the addiction epidemic, that he was going to make this a priority, and he has made it a priority."
HOPE member Sandi Gallion said she sees extensive overprescription of painkillers, as a nurse, and Cardin and Ruppersberger said they hope to give "clearer direction on the proper use of opioids" to the medical community.
Gallion, whose son died of a heroin related overdose in 2015, said physicians renew their licenses and are "right back to prescribing" painkillers, which she believes can change on a federal level.
"Why does someone who comes in, like an athlete who blows his knee out or has a twisted knee, why does he need 30 days worth of oxycodone? He doesn't, but it's freely given to them in the [emergency room]," she said. "I lost my son to a heroin overdoes after he started on a prescription medicine being involved in a car accident, and the doctor just freely gave him 30 days of oxycodone. Why?"
Cardin responded: "I think that's going to change."
"You're absolutely right, and we have been pretty rough on the medical community for not identifying this problem beforehand," he said.
Ruppersberger, whose congressional district includes the southern third of Harford County, said addiction must be recognized as a disease, one that often starts with taking a drug like oxycodone.
"That happens over and over and over again," he said.
Cardin said he hopes the approach of the Sheriff's Office, which focuses on helping victims, can be more widely heard.
"The story of the Sheriff's Office here is not widely understood, that they look at those addicted as victims and are reaching out to help," he said, explaining he knows there is a "general mistrust in the voters" and opioid abuse must be addressed as "a community health problem."
"We are not talking about huge dollars, we really are not. We're talking about a smart investment and focus our dollars on where they need to be," Cardin said. "We have a sensible plan, and no one expects that we're going to solve this problem overnight, but we certainly can make a lot more progress than we've made. I think that's the message we would like to see you reinforce and get us all on the same team."