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THE ISSUE

In its investigative series about the nation’s opioid epidemic, The Washington Post unveiled this jaw-dropping fact July 16: “America’s largest drug companies saturated the country with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012 as the nation’s deadliest drug epidemic spun out of control.” Peering further into the Drug Enforcement Administration database that the Post used, LNP’s Colin Evans reported Tuesday that “Lancaster County received a total of 100 million oxycodone or hydrocodone pills during the seven-year period, equal to 27.9 pills per person annually during that time.”

That’s 76 billion pain pills, nationally.

And 100 million just in Lancaster County.

These numbers are difficult to fathom.

The devastating, heartbreaking, infuriating effects of the opioid epidemic over the past decade and a half would also have been difficult to fathom, if we hadn’t experienced them firsthand in so many of our communities. Experienced them — in too many instances — affecting our family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers.

More local reporting is slated for upcoming editions of LNP on the specifics of the distribution of opioid pills in Lancaster County from 2006 through 2012. It is important to understand what happened here — and across the U.S. — during the height of the epidemic so that together we can, hopefully, ensure that nothing on this scale ever happens again.

In the meantime, we are grateful for two aspects of this issue: the journalism shining light on the forces behind the epidemic’s origins and the ongoing efforts in Pennsylvania to stem the tide of addiction and provide help and healing for those needing treatment.

The Opioid Files

For the big picture, we recommend that you read The Washington Post’s ongoing coverage of the opioid epidemic at bit.ly/OpioidFiles.

Educating ourselves about the epidemic is a necessary part of ensuring the safety of our loved ones and communities moving forward. Our lawmakers, law enforcement officials and medical professionals, too, must understand how the horrific crisis began and spread its tendrils.

Some important, sobering facts reported by the Post:

— Just six companies distributed 75% of the 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills across the country between 2006 and 2012.

— “The volume of the pills handled by the companies climbed as the epidemic surged, increasing 51% from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012. The states that received the highest concentrations of pills per person per year were: West Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina.”

— “Opioid death rates soared in the communities that were flooded with pain pills. The national death rate from opioids was 4.6 deaths per 100,000 residents. But the counties that had the most pills distributed per person experienced more than three times that rate on average.”

— Since 1996, the opioid epidemic has killed more than 200,000 people nationwide.

Statewide efforts

Last month, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed the sixth renewal of the state’s opioid disaster declaration, which was first enacted in January 2018 to make it easier for state agencies and local organizations to boost efforts on prevention, treatment and recovery.

Wolf noted that collaborative efforts have removed about 285 tons of prescription drugs from circulation through take-back boxes; connected more than 5,000 residents to treatment through “warm hand-off” programs; assisted more than 18,000 people with treatment at one of the Centers of Excellence (a list that includes Lancaster General Hospital); administered more than 21,400 life-saving doses of the medication naloxone; and provided guidance to more than 43,000 people who have called 800-662-HELP (4357).

We applaud these ongoing efforts — and others that are in the works. For example: Last month, the state Senate approved a package of bills “to combat the state’s heroin and opioid epidemic by improving prescription drug monitoring, limiting opioid prescriptions, targeting drug dealers and taking other steps to limit the damage inflicted by the addiction crisis in Pennsylvania communities,” per a news release from state Senate Republicans. 

Speaking in support of the package, state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, said, “Sadly, there is no ‘silver bullet’ to solve all of the problems associated with the opioid epidemic. It is a complex problem that must be addressed from every angle.”

We agree. We have long understood that this is an all-hands-on-deck crisis. Harrisburg’s response is only part of the equation. Over the past year, we’ve lauded such disparate but crucial local initiatives as The Rase Project’s recovery specialists; the Lancaster County Drug Task Force’s ongoing efforts to decrease the flow of drugs into our communities; Second Chance PA’s pre-arrest diversion program for addicts; and the Lancaster County Joining Forces Coalition’s bringing together of local stakeholders in this battle.

We are, as a society, committed to ending this epidemic and helping survivors. A full end to the crisis is certainly years away, but part of getting there will be understanding how this happened. How these deadly pain pills flooded our cities and neighborhoods. Those answers many infuriate and confound us, and they are sure to raise even bigger questions. But we must answer them.