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Put opiate overdoses on 'to-do' list

Hello? Earth to The Baltimore Sun. We're shocked, appalled and dismayed at your to-do list for Governor-elect Larry Hogan ("A to-do list for Larry Hogan," Nov. 9).

Are you aware there is a heroin epidemic in Maryland? The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says that "so far in 2014, there have been 528 deaths from overdoses in the state, a 33 percent increase." May I remind you that Mr. Hogan promised to call a state-of-emergency on his second day in office to address this epidemic? And yet The Sun makes absolutely no mention of adding this to Mr. Hogan's to-do list?

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And while I am on the topic, I would also like to point out a few blatant and noteworthy flaws in Dr. Robert P. Schwartz's logic in his commentary, "Don't lose state's momentum treating heroin" (Nov. 10).

First off, we need to stop talking about heroin overdoses and start talking about opiate overdoses. Perhaps Dr. Schwartz would prefer to side-step the fact that according to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, prescription painkillers were responsible for 16,600 deaths across the nation in 2010 while heroin was involved in about 3,000 deaths. Dr. Schwartz conveniently blames the victim by referring to the "increasing misuse of prescription opioid analgesics" rather than the increasing over-prescribing of prescription opioid analgesics. The flooding of our nation with highly addictive prescription painkillers by the pharmaceutical industry while the Food and Drug Administration looked the other way — and while doctors wrote so many prescriptions that every single American could take a pill a day — has been well documented. Since addicting our nation has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, I can well imagine that members of the medical community would like to divert the attention to heroin and away from prescription narcotics.

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Second, I am aghast whenever I hear the medical community talk about "treatment." You would think that medically-assisted treatment — buprenorphine and methadone — is all that is available. In any rational argument regarding treatment, a balanced presentation would consider all treatment modalities that have proven to be effective including three months or longer of residential inpatient treatment at facilities using evidence-based best practices to retrain the brain and modify behavior. The motives of any person who espouses the notion that "no single treatment is right for everyone" while only touting the benefits of medically-assisted addiction maintenance must be highly suspect, particularly if they stand to profit from the drugs prescribed to solve the problem caused by the drugs they over-prescribed in the first place.

Third, you have only to ask those who attempt to locate treatment and recovery services or utilize the state's treatment system to know that Maryland's response to heroin-related problems has been anything but "robust." Consider the following:

•Our state's treatment budget was cut by $6.4 million this past year despite the spiraling death rate.

•Gov. Martin O'Malley's "major educational campaign" which consists of printing a pile of posters advising people to call 2-1-1 when they are seeking a treatment referral has been nothing less than a deplorable debacle. Heroin Action Coalition volunteers have tested the number multiple times by posing as parents seeking detox services for a child who presumably is a daily intravenous heroin user. The 2-1-1 call takers consistently offer referrals to places that do not provide opiate detox services. In fact, as of this writing, a valid referral is provided once for every seven referrals to places that do not provide detox services. It only adds insult to injury when people struggling to find services hear both Governor O'Malley and Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein boastfully pat themselves on the back for devising a program that provides people with useless, irrelevant and misleading information, wastes the valuable time and emotional energy of people who are in crisis and squanders every Maryland taxpayer's hard-earned dollars. You would think they would be embarrassed rather than elated by their inept and half-hearted attempt at saving the lives of Marylanders.

•Additionally, our state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is optional for doctors and pharmacists so it has no teeth! The docs who are over-prescribing are most likely not going to opt in to the program.

•And finally, the grant money that should have gone to train and provide parents and family members (the real first responders) with Naloxone has been diverted to police and emergency medical technicians — those who should have found funding within their own budgets.

If overdose death is the leading cause of unexpected death in the state — and for every one who dies, there are hundreds more who struggle with addiction — perhaps it was their family members who voted for Larry Hogan because they were sick and tired of the unresponsive O'Malley/Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown team ignoring their pleas for help and rejecting their requests to discuss solutions for saving their children, brothers, sisters, friends, parents and grandparents.

Lisa Lowe, Gaithersburg

The writer is director of the Heroin Action Coalition of Maryland.

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