According to the American Psychiatric Association, one in four Americans know someone who is hooked on opioids, and Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., is no exception to that statistic. The father of three admitted that a member of his family had battled with this addiction as well.
"It is very painful for anyone who's walked through it. See, the thing about this is it knows no party affiliation. It knows no race. It knows no social-economic boundaries. It knows no orientation," Walker told Red Alert Politics.
As a former pastor in a Bible Belt state, the North Carolina lawmaker is used to giving words of encouragement and guiding people in moments of weakness. But after days of meeting with those that are on the front lines of this crisis, the realities of opioid addiction left him at a loss for words.
"Some of the stories and some of the things, I don't know how else to explain it. They're heavy," Walker continued. "It's been emotionally draining."
Since 1999, opioid-related deaths in North Carolina have increased by 800 percent, nationwide drug overdoses now kill more Americans than gun homicides and car crashes combined. Walker spent two days meeting with law enforcement, EMTs, HHS and DEA officials, detention facility officers, recovering addicts, faith-based organizations, and state lawmakers.
"Today, after seeing this, it certainly is something that says we need to be doing as much as possible," he said, following a walkthrough of a North Carolina detention facility.
The trip was initially planned to evaluate the effectiveness of the 21st Century Cures Act and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act or CARA in North Carolina. But after his first stop to a Greensboro detention center, Walker quickly realized that these legislative responses by Washington are not enough. The Cures Act grants money to states based on the population with substance use disorder and drug overdose deaths. North Carolina was awarded $31 million, and CARA distributes $70 million nationwide to combat the opioid crisis.
"46 percent of those incarcerated are on some kind of drug offense. It really challenged me to think from a perspective: what is it we can do for those both coming in, but also those coming out?" Walker inquired.
And almost every first responder gave him numerous suggestions, all centered around one factor. In nearly every stop on the trip, those at the front lines of this epidemic told the congressman this amount of funding is not enough. In 2014, it was estimated that the opioid outbreak cost the state $2 billion.
"We need to redirect funds to some of the youth prevention, some of the people who are coming out of detox that need long-term support, that impacted me over the last couple days and its something we'll go back and take a look at," he said.
President Trump said that he intended to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency on August 10. Now, months later, the president has still not made a formal declaration. And as the death toll, overdoses, and costs continue to go up astronomically, Washington has remained mostly quiet on the issue. When asked if this was an issue that D.C. takes seriously, or another example of "all talk, no action," Walker responded sharply.
"Is more [funding] needed? Obviously, it looks like there is, but I wouldn't say there is nothing getting done," Walker said.
In addition to requesting more funding and resources, experts made several suggestions for the congressman to take back to Washington. Their main concerns included overprescribing and tracking prescriptions, the lack of support resources addicts have post-incarceration, the scarcity of prevention efforts, additional training for lawmakers, and the use and availability of Naloxone.
Walker took a tour through the Guilford County Detention Center, where members of the staff told the congressman that they are not only seeing more inmates with substance use disorder, but also informed him many of those inmates are women and more often pregnant.
"That's a sad scene of promising lives, created with great skills and giftedness. To see some of those lives that are being ruined, by drug usage, specifically with opioids, that's overwhelming," he said.
To prevent harm to the unborn child, the facility gives pregnant inmates methadone dosages. Methadone reduces withdrawal symptoms but is known to also be addicting and abused. In June, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said nearly 80 percent of men behind bars and almost 100 percent of incarcerated women were convicted of crimes that directly or indirectly involved drugs.
"Overprescribing is a major cause, and there's no support group for them or support services for after they get out of jail," April Hancock, a nurse at the Guilford County Detention Center, told Walker.
In North Carolina alone, medication and drug use accounted for 93 percent of unintentional deaths. State and local officials in roundtable discussions had mixed reviews on the resuscitation drug naloxone. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, saves those who overdose from opioids or heroin by quickly reversing the effects. And while the drug has saved thousands of lives, some expressed concerns that it is being used as a crutch for opioid abusers.
"Has it saved lives? There's no doubt that every one of these department agencies will tell you 'yes it saves lives.' But, you don't want to create a mindset in, in the drug culture, that you can go and do anything, and everybody can be brought back to life because that just isn't the case," Walker said.
One law enforcement official said they have had many instances where someone would overdose in the parking lot at the police headquarters, knowing they would be resuscitated with Naloxone. The drug cost is about $25 per dose and some organizations are handing out Naloxone for free. There were arguments made that all first responders should have access to this medicine, but experts caution against giving Naloxone to everyone in fear of it being abused as well.
"Why do they come to us or the emergency room or the fire department? Because we're 24/7," one law enforcement official said.
First responders also expressed their concern with the lack of resources they have for this crisis. The officer told Walker that when addicts come to the police station, fire station, or hospital, it is still at the cost of about $100 per night to taxpayers. He said the state has the funds because people are already paying the price for this crisis without realizing it, but with more prevention and recovery solutions the money could be put to better use.
In June, the state of North Carolina unanimously passed the Stop Act which allocated $20 million over two years to fight the opioid crisis in the state. That bill puts restrictions on prescribers and mandates that prescriptions be logged in a monitored statewide database even for veterinarians who write controlled substances for pets. Of the $20 million, half was allocated to local treatment and recovery services. Still, between state and federal funds, North Carolina allocates less than one-third of the funds that the opioid crisis cost the state yearly.
"As a former pastor and the people that you get close to and even people in our immediate family, I don't want to call out their names," Walker said following his last stop on his trip where he talked to addicts in recovery at a faith-based half-way house. "But, yes, it is something that moves your heart a great deal because you see the suffering, not just by the victim, but by also the family members who are exhausted financially, spiritually, psychologically and really reached, reached their wits end as far as trying to learn how to be equipped to even handle such an individual who's going through such an addiction, and that's very painful."
Charyssa Parent (@Charyssa_Parent) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a reporter with Red Alert Politics (a sister publication to the Washington Examiner).
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