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ALEXANDER: PA Leaders Must Come Together to Access Opioid Treatment Funds and Save Lives

President Joe Biden’s host of initiatives to address drug addiction and overdose is at risk of falling on deaf ears if he does not address the rapid rise in fatalities related to opioid abuse.

With the United States focused on battling COVID-19, new information revealed that over one million drug overdose deaths have occurred since the government began collecting this data in the late 1990s. That same data shows trends continuing in the wrong direction, with overdose deaths for the 12-month period ending in April 2021 over 100,000 for the first time ever. Ending this tragic tide will take greater commitment that the United States has yet to put forth.

Unfortunately, government mandates tend to cast wide nets. In this case, it includes consistent talk that prescription opioids should be lumped into the same category as illegal fentanyl. In 2019, prescription opioids were dispensed at the lowest rate in 14 years. Overdose deaths, however, continued to climb.

According to the CDC, “most of the increases in fentanyl deaths from 2013-2016 did not involve prescription fentanyl but were related to illicitly-made fentanyl that is being mixed with or sold as heroin—with or without the users’ knowledge and increasing as counterfeit pills.” Solely blaming prescription opioids for these woes distorts reality.

Eradicating opioid abuse and these fatalities requires greater expansion of quality treatment programs. Leading medical centers like Johns Hopkins have repeatedly told policymakers that treatment relieves withdrawal and addresses cravings. Even with many of the companies that manufacture legal opioids independently funding treatment and education programs, opioid overdoses are still rising as Mexican drug cartels and Chinese drug smugglers flood the United States with illicit fentanyl. Additional interdiction efforts will be needed to end these trafficking networks.

A glimmer of hope emerged in July 2021 with the announcement of a landmark $26 billion settlement that a bipartisan group of state attorneys general negotiated with three opioid distributors and manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. With that deal, states and communities that sign on have the potential to receive billions of dollars to fund recovery, treatment, and prevention programs. As of January 2022, 44 states, D.C. and five territories have fully entered into the agreement providing the “critical mass” needed to move forward with finalizing the settlement.

Although the Keystone State signed onto the deal, it still has some challenges to overcome. In order to access the full allotment of funds available for Pennsylvania, local governments must also agree to participate. Unfortunately, only 75 percent of counties have signed on thus far. A notable holdout is City of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who to date has refused to join the settlement negotiated by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a fellow Democrat. In doing so the Philadelphia D.A. is jeopardizing the $1 billion in hard-fought funds the citizens of the commonwealth are entitled to.

D.A. Krasner, who has been litigating opioid companies since 2018, believes the $5 million to $8 million per year over 18 years ($90-$144 million in total) Philadelphia is projected to receive is inadequate. A holdout like that might prove unwise, considering how unlikely it would be for Philadelphia to negotiate a more robust deal than what was reached by the combined efforts of the majority of state attorneys general.

Further, opting-out would delay access to funds for treatment programs and might mean Philadelphia will ultimately get nothing, should their independent efforts prove unsuccessful. With the majority of Pennsylvania’s drug overdoses occurring in Philadelphia and with that number rising rapidly, especially among African Americans, the city of brotherly love can ill afford to reject such resources.

The opioid epidemic has cost too many American lives. Instead of spending millions of dollars and countless time on lawsuits, the nation needs to expand successful treatment, prevention, and education programs to reduce deaths and help Americans become productive. Now, more than ever, the nation must provide greater attention to saving lives. Opting into this latest lawsuit settlement would be a prudent start.

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