Opinion: Progress is being made in the opioid overdose death epidemic, but the work must continue

My first experience with Centre County’s efforts to address the opioid overdose death epidemic came in 2016 as the communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. I participated in a panel discussion at Mount Nittany Medical Center where I talked about my family’s story of addiction.

At that time, much of the commonwealth was just beginning to grasp the severity of the situation. Today, thanks to the hard work of leaders in Centre County and the commonwealth, overdose deaths in Pennsylvania were 18 percent lower in 2018 than in 2017, dropping from an all-time high of 5,377 to 4,413.

Since 2015, when 15 people died of drug overdose in Centre County, overdose deaths there have seesawed, increasing to 21 in 2016, dropping to 14 in 2017, then spiking to 22 in 2018. So far this year, only two overdose deaths are reported in the county.

There are some obvious reasons for this success. The widespread distribution of and access to naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, has saved countless lives. Expanded access to evidence-based medication-assisted treatment is another.

Yet even with this success, there is much work left to do. The innovation that has saved so many lives must continue.

Take for example the “warm hand-off” process. Although many hospitals across the state have implemented and refined a process whereby opioid-use disorder patients are moved from the emergency department directly into treatment, there are many areas of the commonwealth where no such process exists. This should become standard operating procedure.

Counseling must be a primary tool to treat addiction, but it cannot be the only one. Leading addiction treatment providers are making counseling and medication available under one roof.

That day in Centre County, I told a story of great sadness but also of hope. My brothers and I were born and raised in Cambria County with values, by hard-working parents who provided us with every opportunity they could. Even so, my brother Todd died in 2005 at 28 from a heroin overdose, and my 25-year-old brother Josh, in 2007, also died of a drug overdose. In 2012, as the last living child of my parents, I entered treatment for my addiction to opioids. Today, more than seven years later, I identify as a person in long-term recovery from addiction.

My family’s story is a cautionary tale. If I continue to do the things that I have done during those seven years, I will continue to live a life of recovery. If I do not, my recovery is in jeopardy. I cannot take my foot off the gas, so to speak.

The collection of champions working to address this epidemic should not take their collective foot off the gas, either. We don’t know if 2018 is an anomaly or the beginning of a downward trend.

Pinnacle Treatment Centers has been privileged to be part of much of the innovation that has saved lives. We’re proud to be part of Centre County’s strong efforts to reduce drug overdose deaths and open the door to a greater life of recovery for so many. But we can’t rest on our laurels. As a partner with this community, we stand ready to continue to work collaboratively and creatively to save even more lives.

Jason Snyder is the regional director of strategic partnerships for Pinnacle Treatment Centers. Pinnacle owns and operates 13 community-based outpatient addiction treatment programs in Pennsylvania, including State College Medical.