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Concord Monitor: Awareness, empathy key in addiction fight

January 15, 2016
Opinion Editorial
In recent years, we have witnessed the increasing pain and suffering inflicted by heroin and opioid addiction in communities in our districts and across the country. We, like many of our constituents, have seen firsthand how this tragic epidemic has affected our own friends and loved ones, and by sharing their stories we hope to put a face to the addiction crisis.

The statistics surrounding drug addiction and overdose are truly staggering.

Since 2010, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths has more than tripled nationwide and the numbers are only increasing. In 2014, there were 10,574 deaths due to heroin overdose, a 26 percent increase over the previous year. There were also 18,983 deaths from prescription opioids, an annual increase of 16 percent. All signs suggest that families and communities will suffer even greater losses in 2015. Of course, this data does not include the survivors whose lives have still been consumed and forever-changed by this crisis.

But when we meet with constituents back home, these statistics are more than just numbers; in fact, they mean something much more. They are our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, teachers and other members of our communities who were simply swept up in the nightmare of addiction. We believe it's critical to share this personal side of heroin and opioid abuse to help put a human face on this epidemic in a way that will lead to more serious steps to prevent and treat addiction.

That is why we joined together in a bipartisan effort on the House floor last week to share the stories of those close to us who have been struck by addiction. From the cosmetologist in New Hampshire who lost her beloved step-daughter to a heroin overdose, to the Southern New Jersey mother who was able to survive cancer because she herself could receive treatment, but who lost her son to an overdose because treatment was not available for him, to one Ohio congressional office with two staffers who each lost a member of their extended families on back to back days in July 2015, we have all seen how drug abuse can affect those close to us – and how it can strike anywhere, and anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or geographical location.

The good news is that as this crisis deepens, policy makers in Congress and elsewhere are focusing more attention on how we can help treat and prevent heroin and opioid addiction. The bipartisan omnibus appropriations bill that passed last month included important assistance to law enforcement, resources for drug courts and increased funding for states to improve monitoring of prescription medication. It also required the Veterans Health Administration to adopt safe opioid prescribing practices and strengthened funding to the Centers for Disease Control to improve the prescribing of prescription opioids.

There are also a number of important pieces of pending legislation that will take steps to coordinate federal interagency efforts on addiction, improve interstate monitoring of controlled substances, and strengthen the ability of first responders to provide care in the event of an overdose.

But in truth, building greater awareness and empathy is one of the most important things we can do to combat this growing problem and the stigma that surrounds it in a way that leads to change. That is why we came together last year to form the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic, which is a group of more than 40 members of Congress who have united to help educate their colleagues and advance solutions.

The floor speeches last week were a small but important part of our task force's efforts to raise the profile of this issue that is having such a devastating impact in our country. In honor of those we spoke about, we must continue to strengthen our efforts to combat this epidemic.

This column was signed by Reps. Annie Kuster and Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Donald Norcross of New Jersey, Dan Kildee and Tim Walberg of Michigan, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Paul Tonko of New York, Richard Neal and Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania and David Cicilline of Rhode Island. It originally appeared in the January 15 edition of the Concord Monitor.