OPINION: Continuing to Fight the Opioid Crisis

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Data recently released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and analyzed by the Washington Post has renewed attention to the origins of the opioid crisis afflicting communities across our Commonwealth and country.

A court ordered the release of a DEA database that tracks pain pills sold in our country. The sheer quantity of pills revealed by the database is astounding: 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were distributed in the United States between 2006 and 2012.

Some of these statistics are even more disturbing because they strike close to home. Norton received 306 pills per person per year, and Martinsville received 242 pills per person. It is true that pharmacies in those cities serve their surrounding areas, but the Post found that Norton’s per capita death rate from prescription opioid overdoses was 18 times the national rate.

We knew the country had an opioid crisis before these numbers came out, but the data indicates it was even larger than estimated.

With these numbers public, eyes are again on the drug manufacturers, drug distributors, and federal regulators who oversaw the industry when this damage was being inflicted on the country.

Court actions are ongoing against some of these entities, but the House Energy and Commerce Committee has also undertaken an investigation into them.

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, on which I serve, looked into the shipment of huge quantities of pain pills to pharmacies serving some small towns and rural areas where the number of pills far surpassed any legitimate need for them. Our investigation included grilling of drug industry executives because, in my opinion, they either looked the other way or actively promoted opioid overuse. We also questioned DEA officials for mishandling the situation as pills flooded our communities.

It is important to note, however, that the newly-released data only focuses on one aspect of the larger opioid crisis. Legal prescription pills used for illegitimate purposes constituted its first phase. In the wake of the Washington Post series, the Martinsville Bulletin reported that from 2012 to 2016, opioid prescription rates in Martinsville and Henry County declined.

This information aligns with national trends. Legal pills became somewhat more difficult to obtain, so heroin use became more prevalent, and now synthetic opioids such as the dangerous substance fentanyl arguably pose the greatest threat. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, in 2017, 28,000 overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids occurred in the United States.

Fentanyl trafficking frequently takes place over the dark web, with orders placed online and then shipped through carriers such as the Postal Service. China is the primary source of illicit fentanyl coming into our country, with pure fentanyl coming direct from China or precursors shipped from there to Mexico, where it is created and then smuggled via cartels across the border.

The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, which moved through the Energy and Commerce Committee and was signed into law last year, provided new enforcement tools to crack down on illicit fentanyl shipments. The Trump Administration is also engaging with China to secure its cooperation in fighting this scourge.

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on combating illicit fentanyl on July 16, featuring testimony from executive branch officials, to be up to date on these efforts.

The Committee is also likely to hold a hearing on implementation of the SUPPORT Act in the near future.

The opioid crisis has absorbed considerable energy in Congress, but we cannot slacken our efforts.

At a Member Day event, where representatives not sitting on the Energy and Commerce Committee testify about their priorities under the Committee’s jurisdiction, Congressman David Trone (D-MD) spoke about combating the opioid crisis. At the time he testified, I was representing Republican Committee members. We do not share a state or party affiliation, but addressing the issue is nevertheless a priority for both of us.

Further, at the hearing I asked the Committee to push the Food and Drug Administration in finding new non-opioid pain relievers.

I also noted how important it was to increase the number of treatment centers, especially in rural areas impacted by the opioid crisis, like the Ninth District.

Making sure that federal money allocated to the crisis is getting to impacted communities was another priority I encouraged.

Clearly, more is to be done to spare our families and communities further heartbreak inflicted by the opioid crisis.

Congressman Morgan Griffith

www.morgangriffith.house.gov.