Ninety people die each day in America from overdoses, a figure that led Congressman Greg Walden, R-Ore., to do something out of the norm as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
For the first time during the 115th Congress, Walden convened all 55 members of the committee to examine the federal government's response to President Donald Trump’s declaration of opioid addiction as a national public health emergency.
Walden said an “all-hands-on-deck” approach is needed to address the epidemic that is taking the lives of tens of thousands of people a year.
“In Oregon alone, more people died last year from drug overdoses than from car accidents,” he said. “More people died in the past year from opioid overdoses than the entire Vietnam War (58,220).”
Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin we well as the prescription pain relievers Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
“This is a deadly, deadly problem that is striking every community in our country,” said Walden.
The meeting in late October followed earlier investigations by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about the epidemic, including alleged pill dumping in West Virginia.
Walden expressed frustration that DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) officials were not providing information requested by the committee about the small community of Kermit, W. Va., with a population of 392, receiving nine million opioid pills in two years. In addition, the pharmacy in Oceana, W. Va., received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as
another pharmacy just eight blocks away between 2005 and 2016.
“I’m going to be very blunt: My patience is wearing thin,” said Walden to Neil Doherty, DEA’s deputy assistant administrator, who was present at the Oct. 25 meeting.
“Our requests for data from the DEA are met with delay, excuses and, frankly, inadequate response. People are dying. Lives and families are ruined.
“It is time for DEA to get this committee the information we need, and to do it quickly. No more dodges. No more delays. We look forward to finally hearing directly from DEA on these matters.”
On Wednesday, Walden’s office confirmed that the DEA has still not provided all the information requested by the committee through a series of letters in 2017.
“The data we have requested goes back to the first of the year,” said Walden. “We will resort to subpoenas if necessary. We need this data to determine public policy.”
Walden said the DEA needs to help identify and respond to suspicious order trends for addictive opioids that appear problematic or excessive, such as those in West Virginia.
Recently, he said the drug Fentanyl is emerging as a problem because it is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
A person who uses or abuses this drug and is not accustomed to taking opiates can overdose due to its strength. When fentanyl is combined with another drug that suppresses breathing, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, the combination can also cause death.
In some large cities, individuals have managed to overdose when they mixed fentanyl with either cocaine or heroin.
“We need to shut off the flow of fentanyl,” said Walden.
He said doctors across the nation have recognized the addictive nature of opioids and are being more careful about prescribing them if there are other ways to manage pain.
In the past, Walden said people were told opioids were not widely addictive and they were freely prescribed, which contributed to overuse.
“We need a change of culture on pain management,” he said.
He said that is no small task given that 27 million Americans suffer from some type of chronic pain.
Scientists are working to develop other pain relievers that are not as addictive as opioids for these patients, said Walden.
He said the federal government is making funding available to communities to combat the opioid problem and his committee wants to make sure the money if “getting to the ground” to make a difference.
Trump has also authorized agencies to redirect resources to deal with the crisis.
Treatment and mental health resources nees to be readily available to people trying to recovery from an addiction, which is one goal of the committee, said Walden.
“How soon will we see positive effects?” he asked. “I think it could come quickly with the authority the president has given agencies—although it will still take longer than we like.”
Part of the battle, he said, is changing the stigma that goes with the mental health component of addiction.
“We need to treat this as the disease it is and educate people about the body chemistry change that occurs,” he said.
Walden has held roundtables in Grants Pass and Bend this year to discuss opioid abuse in Oregon.
He met at these forums with local medical professional, law enforcement representatives and families affected to drug addiction to learn more about what is being done on the ground to battle what he describes as the “scourge” of the nation.
“We need to learn from people on the front lines of this fight what is working and what more can be done,” he said.