- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2017

LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md. — Opioid addiction isn’t merely the scourge of the Rust Belt and the Appalachians: It’s crippling and killing people in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, regional leaders said Tuesday.

Last year, overdoses of opioid painkillers claimed the lives of at least 918 people in Maryland, 1,100 in Virginia and 198 in the nation’s capital. Public health officials expect even more opioid-related deaths this year.

“There are no state lines, there are no boundaries when it comes to this problem,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat.

Mr. McAuliffe joined Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at the Regional Opioid and Substance Abuse Summit at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, Maryland.

“Opioid addiction must be treated like the health issue that it is,” said Miss Bowser, a Democrat. “Shifting the way we frame the conversation can destigmatize those who seek treatment and gives us — the entire region — a greater chance of success.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that opioids accounted for 61 percent (28,647) of all overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2014 and 63 percent (33,091) in 2015. Though the number of methadone-related deaths has fallen in recent years, fatal overdoses attributable to other opioids — such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone — have risen sharply among all the states.

“A multifaceted, collaborative public health and law enforcement approach is urgently needed,” the CDC says on its website.

In October, Miss Bowser, Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Hogan participated in their first regional meeting in the District, where they signed the National Capital Region Compact to Combat Opioid Addiction.

Tuesday’s summit was the first step to bringing together hundreds of policymakers and public health officials to figure out the best regional response to combat the growing epidemic.

“The goal has been to shine the spotlight on the heroin and opioid crisis in our region,” Mr. Hogan, a Republican, told a packed auditorium of more than 500 health officials and law enforcement officers. “We’re throwing everything we can at it from all directions.”

Fatal opioid overdoses have climbed regionally since 2013.

Maryland recorded 838 opioid-related deaths in 2013, 1,094 in 2014 and 1,259 in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Data from 2016 show 918 deaths from January through September.

In March, Mr. Hogan became the first governor in the country to declare a state of emergency in the opioid crisis.

Virginia logged 661 opioid overdose deaths in 2013, 733 in 2014 and 803 in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Health.

Mr. McAuliffe said state officials are at a loss to explain the increase and noted that areas such as Virginia Beach are tallying more heroin-related deaths while Southwest Virginia is recording more deaths related to prescription opioids such as OxyContin.

The governor railed against doctors who prescribe opioid painkillers without checking a patient’s risk of addiction.

“There are too many doctors prescribing too many pills,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “They’re killing people in my state.”

The District’s Department of Health tallied 83 opioid deaths in 2014 and 114 in 2015. More of those deaths have been caused by overdoses of heroin and the illicit synthetic opioid fentanyl rather than prescription medications, and many of those deaths have occurred east of the Anacostia River in the District’s poorest neighborhoods.

“The opioid crisis looks different in the District compared to our neighbors, but our commitment to addressing it is equally as strong,” said Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. Department of Health. “It starts with gathering and sharing data so we can identify problems early, and then deploys a range of intervention strategies to reduce the risk to individuals and communities.”

Miss Bowser, Mr. Hogan and Mr. McAuliffe said they are taking notice of what their counterparts have done as they devise regional plans that comply with the laws in each jurisdiction. The common denominator in their efforts is that opioid addiction should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal matter.

Mr. McAuliffe called for more drug courts that can get addicts into treatment programs rather than throwing them into prisons.

“We’re putting too many people in prison, and it’s not doing us any good,” he said. “These opiates hijack your brain. They’re not criminals.”

In declaring a state of emergency, Mr. Hogan announced $50 million in new funding to address the crisis. He also appointed his senior emergency management adviser Clay Stamp to lead the state’s coordinated effort to combat opioid addiction.

“We must cut through the red tape so that we are empowering the important work being done in our many state agencies and at the local level all across our state,” Mr. Hogan said. “This is really about an all-hands-on-deck approach, not just in Maryland but across the region and nation.”

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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