Gov. Wolf To Declare State Emergency On Pennsylvania's Opioid Crisis

By Paul Gaita 01/12/18

Preliminary figures show that more than 5,000 state residents died from drug overdoses in 2017, an increase of 13% over 2016 statistics.

Governor Tom Wolf

In an effort to stem the rising tide of opioid deaths in his state, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a state disaster emergency during a news conference at the State Capitol on January 10. 

The declaration—the first of its kind for the Keystone State—will direct all state agencies to collaborate on health and public safety in regard to opioid-related issues for a period of at least 90 days, and will establish a "command center" at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to coordinate and oversee these actions.

The governor also established 13 key initiatives for medical and dependency treatment agencies, including expanded access to the state's prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) and increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone for first responders and pharmacists.

Speaking at the news conference prior to signing the declaration, Governor Wolf said, "While we have made progress in combatting the heroin and opioid abuse crisis and drastically expanded Pennsylvania’s response, we are still losing far too many Pennsylvanians."  

As the New Castle News noted, preliminary figures show that more than 5,000 state residents died from drug overdoses in 2017, an increase of 13% over 2016 statistics, which attributed 4,642 lives lost to heroin and opioid overdoses. Pennsylvania is currently ranked fourth by the CDC on a list of states with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the country, with 37.9 per 100,000 residents as of 2016.

Increased coordination and communication between state agencies is the cornerstone of the governor's initiatives, including expanded access to the state's prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) for state officials to identify doctors who are overprescribing opioid medication, as well as patients who may be consulting more than one physician to obtain greater amounts of drugs.

Pennsylvania was initially slow to establish such a program—it was the 49th state to set up a PDMP. The news of increased access was welcomed by treatment professionals like Dr. Joseph Garbely, director of Caron Treatment Centers, who noted that the program is "one of the best tools we have."

Other initiatives include waiving a current requirement for patients who want treatment for dependency issues to first undergo a face-to-face consultation with doctors, which will be replaced by an initial intake review by a certified nurse or physician's assistant to streamline the process. Licensing and regulatory provisions will also be waived to allow expanded access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) at satellite facilities outside of program locations.

Access to naloxone will also be expanded to allow pharmacists to partner with prisons and treatment programs to make it available to individuals after leaving those facilities.

A full list of the initiatives, and the text of the declaration, can be found on the governor's website. Though the declaration covers 90 days, the maximum allowed by law, the governor said that he may extend that timeframe by issuing another proclamation.

The declaration drew praise from both sides of the political spectrum. Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey issued a statement that read, "The opioid and heroin crisis has rightfully drawn bipartisan attention in Congress and all levels of government. Today's opioid emergency declaration sends a clear message that more work remains to be done."

His Democratic colleague, Senator Bob Casey, noted via Twitter that "this declaration will bring additional resources to bear on this horrific public health emergency that has ripped apart far too many families." 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.