Gov. Larry Hogan and the leaders of Virginia and the District of Columbia pledged Tuesday to wage a coordinated fight against the epidemic of heroin and other opioid overdoses afflicting the region.
Maryland's governor joined with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser at the Regional Opioid and Substance Abuse Summit in Linthicum Heights, where addiction experts and public officials gathered to discuss strategies for fighting a scourge that is now killing more than 1,000 Marylanders a year.
"The reality is that this threat has rapidly escalated," Hogan told the hundreds of participants gathered for the daylong conference. "Ultimately this is about saving lives, and it will take a collaborative, holistic approach to address that."
Hogan made the surge in heroin and other drug-related deaths a key issue in his 2014 campaign and has made fighting the epidemic a priority. Nevertheless, drug and alcohol intoxication deaths in Maryland — most of them involving heroin, fentanyl and other opioid drugs — soared by about 50 percent in 2016. State health officials estimated 1,468 people died in the first nine months of the year.
The governor, who declared a public health emergency in March, said six people were dying from overdoses every day in Maryland. He said his administration has provided $50 million in new funding to deal with the crisis.
The summit follows a regional compact that Hogan, Bowser and McAuliffe signed in October to collaborate on fighting heroin and opioid abuse in metropolitan Washington.
One of the strategies Hogan said he wants to expand is the use of drug courts, which typically divert addicts who have been arrested for crimes into treatment. The governor noted that Maryland now has such courts in some jurisdictions, but not all.
Hogan also signaled that he has not given up on limiting doctors to prescribing a week's supply of opiate pain killers at a time, a strategy intended to prevent patients from becoming hooked on legal drugs that can eventually lead to heroin use.
The governor proposed the limits during this year's General Assembly session, but lawmakers watered down the legislation under pressure from physicians and patients with chronic pain.
Virginia has adopted such a requirement, a point McAuliffe highlighted in his speech and in a news conference later. The Republican Hogan asked McAuliffe, a Democrat, whether he would speak with lawmakers of his party in Maryland. McAuliffe agreed to.
"I will be glad to call," he told reporters. "Why should a doctor complain about this rule?"
Bowser, a Democrat, stressed the importance of removing the social stigma from addiction.
"We're dealing with a health emergency, and we need to think of it as such," she said.
Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the governor emphatically agrees. She said the state received a federal grant including $500,000 for an anti-stigma campaign.
Bowser also called for increased access to naloxone, a drug that can save the lives of people who have overdosed on heroin or other drugs.
"We have to get over the idea we're going to stop every drug abuser from using drugs," she said.
McAuliffe said his state has taken the lead on making naloxone available. He said Virginia allows individuals to purchase the drug at pharmacies without a prescription.
Chasse said the General Assembly has passed a bill that would take the same step. Hogan has yet to sign the bill, but Chasse said the governor supports it. Under current law, an individual must complete training before receiving naloxone without a prescription.
The Virginia governor said the overdose crisis has taken different forms in the various regions of his state. For instance, he said, most of the overdose problems in Tidewater Virginia involve heroin and other street drugs. In the far southwestern part of the state, he said, the problem is almost entirely prescription drugs.
"There are too many doctors prescribing too many pills," he said.
McAuliffe said his state is building a database of opioid prescriptions in order to track addicts who may be doctor-shopping. He pledged to share that information with Maryland and the District of Columbia.