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Jackson County sees startling spike in opioid overdose deaths

Congress takes aim at opioid addiction



With opioid addiction and overdose deaths hitting Southern Oregon and the rest of America, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden announced Monday that Congress is working on a flurry of bipartisan bills to combat the problem.

Walden, R-Hood River, is chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which recently took testimony from parents whose children had overdosed and died.

Jackson County saw a spike in overdoses this spring, with 10 suspected overdose deaths from March 7 through April 21, compared to four overdose deaths for all of 2016 and six overdose deaths in 2017, according to county officials.

“The problem is not just in some other town or for some other parent to deal with. It’s here, affecting our loved ones and crippling our communities,” Walden said Monday at his Medford office, flanked by local officials and parents.

Walden said an investigation is underway into companies that dumped massive quantities of prescription opioid pain pills into small communities.

He said Congress is also investigating the spread of the powerful and often deadly drug fentanyl, which dealers sometimes mix into heroin, and counterfeit prescription pain pills.

Most illicit fentanyl is coming from China and Mexico, according to Walden’s office.

Although lab results aren’t back yet in the recent overdose death cases, Jackson County officials have said they believe fentanyl-laced heroin may have entered the area.

Medford police have lab results back from prior drug seizures. Those lab tests have detected fentanyl in several cases.

A bill in Congress would provide grant funding for labs to detect fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Speaking Monday, Grants Pass resident Paula Peterson said addiction can impact anyone.

“Both of my sons have been caught in the cycle of addiction,” said Peterson, who described herself as a middle-class mom.

After a lengthy struggle, she said, they are receiving help through the Siskiyou Community Health Center in Grants Pass.

Until recently, Peterson said her sons were buying Suboxone illegally on the streets to deal with their addiction.

The prescription medication eases withdrawal symptoms, curbs the desire to use and blocks the effects of opioids if a person does relapse and use drugs.

Peterson said she would like to see medication-assisted treatment and the full spectrum of addiction treatment more readily available.

“No one should feel like they have to buy their treatment for their disease on the streets,” she said. “It should be available through a health care professional.”

Grants Pass resident Mike Pelfrey said he and his wife, desperate to get care for their addicted son, were cheated out of money by a disreputable Arizona sober living center.

Walden said an investigation is underway into substandard treatment facilities that take payments but don’t deliver results.

Pelfrey recommended that families impacted by addiction join the Families Anonymous support group.

He said most people know someone struggling with addiction, which he called a silent disease.

“This is not a political issue,” Pelfrey said. “This is an American issue.”

Walden said overdose deaths have reached an unprecedented level, with 42,000 Americans dying in 2016 — more than were killed in car crashes. In Oregon, 245 people overdosed and died that year.

Local law enforcement agencies and paramedics are carrying naloxone, which can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. The medication is often sold under the brand name Narcan in easy-to-use nasal spray form.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler urged people to call 911 as soon as possible if someone appears to be overdosing. He noted state law shields the caller from prosecution on drug charges.

Josephine County Commissioner Lily Morgan urged addicted people not to become complacent because of naloxone’s widening availability. She said too many are continuing to use drugs with the belief that someone will revive them if they overdose.

One bill in Congress would provide resources for hospitals to provide naloxone to overdose patients when they are discharged, connect patients to peer-support specialists and refer them to treatment.

Another bill would give the National Institutes of Health more power to research nonaddictive pain medication.

A student loan repayment plan act would draw more substance abuse treatment professionals to underserved areas, including rural America.

A proposed bill would do away with restrictions that bar Medicaid payments to long-term addiction treatment centers with more than 16 beds.

The outdated restriction dates back to the country’s efforts to stop warehousing mentally ill people in large asylums, Walden said.

Other bills would improve the sharing of medical records of addicted patients, boost the use of telemedicine for people who don’t live near mental health and addiction treatment providers, train pharmacists to recognize forged prescriptions, require electronic prescriptions for certain addictive medications, fund peer mentors, establish high-quality treatment centers and track the effectiveness of treatment.

Walden said he is working to combat addiction and overdose deaths without harming Americans with chronic pain who need medication, such as those with cancer or crippling arthritis.

In past decades, health care providers often under-treated pain. Then providers began offering more pain control, often with reassurances from pharmaceutical companies that the new classes of opioid painkillers were not addictive — despite their similarities to heroin.

“I’ve consistently cautioned that we do not want to swing the pendulum too far and harm the 25.3 million Americans who experience chronic pain,” Walden said. “But to the parents, sons, daughters, friends and loved ones suffering from addiction who are pleading with us to act, we have heard their call as well, and we are moving forward.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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