Saturday, October 25, 2014

October 24, 2014

Contact:  Lisa Lowe
Heroin Action Coalition


WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 29TH,  12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.


In the most recent gubernatorial debate between Lieutenant Governor, Anthony Brown, and Republican contender, Larry Hogan, Maryland's heroin epidemic was noted among the top issues facing the state.  Hogan admits that "we have a heroin epidemic here in Maryland. We have been called the heroin capital of the United States."  He claims that "Maryland is the only state on the East Coast that has not declared a state of emergency over this very serious problem."  He promises that within two days of taking office, he will "immediately call a state of emergency and call a summit to bring all of the various components together to sit around the table to find out how we attack this problem.  It is a major major issue!"

Anthony Brown promised to allocate $100,000,000 to "better drug treatment, education and outreach programs".  This funding will become available through savings created by the new marijuana decriminalization laws which will save the state millions when cases in which marijuana users are caught with small amounts of marijuana are no longer prosecuted.

Leaders of grassroots advocacy groups across the state agree that opiate addiction and overdose death have reached epidemic proportions and is Maryland's biggest problem.  Members are continuously frustrated by a lack of responsiveness and leadership on the part of Governor O'Malley in tackling the problem.

"If our kids were dying of any other epidemic, our state would be under quarantine," says Carin Callan-Miller, co-founder of Save Our Children and member of the statewide coalition of family-based grassroots advocacy groups --Heroin Action Coalition of Maryland.  "All you hear about in the media these days is Ebola.  We have mustered funding, doctors, troops, medicine and everything else to address this problem.  Yet, while 3,000 people died of Ebola in Africa, 30,000 Americans died from overdoses --And still the President, elected leaders, the press, local health departments, school officials, and every other community leader remains relatively silent on this issue!" 

Lisa Lowe, founder of Heroin Action Coalition agrees.  "This is the biggest public health crisis in my lifetime --parents are burying more kids than they were during the Vietnam War, but due to a long history of stigma and anonymity surrounding addiction, family members are extremely reluctant to talk about it.  If no one is talking about it, the media has no stories to write about it, and our elected officials do not have a constituency to hold them accountable for resolving the problem," says Lowe.  "By the same token, our Maryland Governor has been remiss in making this issue the state priority that it should have been during the past four years." 

"Maryland is way behind other states in providing a solution," says Callan-Miller.  "Families are going bankrupt, mortgaging their homes, cashing out life savings, and spending their retirement to save their kids --often sending them to out of state treatment programs that are just not available in our own state."  She says that she and her husband have mortgaged their home and spent their retirement on getting treatment for their son, who has struggled with a substance use disorder and has been repeatedly unable to get the help he needs in Maryland.  Lowe has spent so much time trying to get her son the treatment that would save his life --that she ended up losing her job and then her home. 

Ginger Rosela lost her son to an overdose a little over a year ago.  Since then, she has been an advocate for better prevention, treatment and recovery programs in Calvert County and has also joined the statewide Coalition of family advocates.  She started a FaceBook page dedicated to her son Jake, and has been instrumental in heightening awareness and helping families to get their loved ones into treatment in Southern Maryland.  She recently held an event in Calvert County in which more than 50 people attended and received training in overdose prevention and free Naloxone kits --the opiate overdose reversal drug that only recently became available to parents with the passage of legislation.  According to Rosela, family members are doing the work that they expected their state and county health departments to do.  "In order to get Naloxone into the hands of family members, we had to find a local legislator willing to introduce a bill, then we had to take off work to educate our legislators."  "Now, in order to get the Naloxone to the families who need it, we must find doctors willing to prescribe it, get trained in teaching other family members to use it, find locations to hold the trainings, promote the events, and raise money to purchase the kits --all at our own expense," explains Rosela.  "There are many advocates who are working full time without pay to save lives," says Rosela.  "Even though it is too late to save my own son, I cannot bear to hear about the next death or the next funeral or the next heartbroken Mom or Dad.  So I am fighting to save their kid." 

Families are frustrated that more has not been done to resolve the problem.  "Last year, families spent a lot of time educating elected leaders on the merits of the Good Samaritan Bill and were successful in getting it passed into law," points out Rosela.  The Good Samaritan Bill provides limited immunity from arrest or prosecution for minor drug law violations for people who call for medical help when they are witnessing an overdose.  Rosela is disappointed that there has not been a statewide campaign to educate citizens about the new law.  "This law has the potential to save lives," maintains Rosela, "except that no one has heard about it."

"We do not have an organization that supports families with an individual struggling with a substance use disorder," Lowe points out.  "We have no budget, no paid staff, and we are all doing this work around our other jobs," she admits.  "There are other advocacy organizations that save the Bay, save animals, or advocate for fair mental health policy --all with million dollar annual budgets --but we are trying to save kids with absolutely no budget."

Lowe argues that a lack of performance measures for treatment programs are at the root of the problem. "Despite millions being poured into Maryland's addiction treatment programs, Maryland continues to wrestle with an out-of-control heroin epidemic.  We do not know what works because we have no standards for defining successful outcomes and no real performance measures for comparing various programs or determining which ones are even effective.  How do we know where to spend tax payer dollars if we don't know what has worked and what hasn't," questions Lowe.  "We need to begin to look at ways to compare all of the programs in our state's continuum of care, so that we can fund what works.  We need to look at what other state's are doing that has achieved measurable results."

"This is definitely an area where we would like to see improvement in the new administration," says Lowe.  "While the Governor may define successful recovery as the ability to hold a job while an individual maintains a dependency on high doses of methadone --a relatively low cost option for the state, many family peer support advocates argue that methadone maintenance is simply another form of addiction, albeit a legal form.  Many families are in support of long term residential treatment, arguing that even though it may be more costly in the short term, the savings in terms of health and quality of life is worth it in the long run.  Families need to be invited to weigh in on the policy that effects our lives and impacts our families," urges Lowe.  

"We need to look at ways of defining success that everyone agrees with," emphasizes Lowe.   "Then we need to figure out which treatment providers have the highest rates of success with regard to meeting these benchmarks.  We need to look at ALL programs along the continuum of care --those that are publicly funded as well as privately funded. Then we need to tie rates of success to county and state funding.  Only then can our elected leaders be sure that our tax dollars are doing what our citizens want them to do --and that is to solve the problem of addiction and overdose death."   Lowe stresses that "our elected officials have a responsibility to spend tax payer dollars wisely --to achieve the best bang for the buck.  Transparent and measurable outcomes are the only way that Maryland constituents have to hold their elected and appointed leaders accountable for spending their money on what is in their best interest." 

Rosela agrees, "the responsibility for implementing effective policy and programs for addiction treatment in the State of Maryland falls squarely at the door of the Governor.  This is a critical campaign issue which has not been fully addressed by either gubernatorial candidate."  With an 88% increase in the overdose rate from 2011 to 2013, and DHMH first quarter stats for this year showing a 33% increase in overdose deaths compared to the same time last year, voters want to know how the candidates will address this issue.

Family advocates are guardedly hopeful that the new administration will bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to tackle the problem.  "But in the long run," notes Callan-Miller, "we will need the new administration to allocate the necessary funding to create necessary programs, rather than cut the treatment budget --as Governor O'Malley did during the past year."

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