Looking At Addiction As A Health Crisis

Dec 3, 2016

A woman prepares to shoot heroin in a public park.
Credit Jessica Kourkounis / Keystone Crossroads

For the past 20 years, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, has been a vocal advocate for drug and alcohol rehabilitation in Pennsylvania. And he’s been pushing the public and lawmakers to stop looking at addiction as a crime.

“Addiction has to be looked at like a disease and it is, like other diseases, highly treatable, and treatment works,” he said.

DiGirolamo got some support from the federal government this month in the form of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s first-of-its-kind report, “Facing Addiction in America, Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.” Its significance and scope is being compared to the 1964 surgeon general report on smoking. That report led to America’s acceptance of the link between smoking and cancer. This report reframes the addiction epidemic as a public health concern.

“Addiction is not a character flaw,” Murthy says in the report, “It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion that we approach heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

According to a DEA intelligence report, the number of drug-related overdose deaths in Pennsylvania jumped 23.4 percent from 2014 to 2015.

“We’ve got to get together," said DiGirolamo. “Government people, legislators, doctors, prescribers, drug companies. We should all be working together on trying to stop this absolute epidemic that is devastating our families here in Pennsylvania.”

Key highlights from the report:

  • The health and well-being of greater communities  — not just the individuals who have “substance use disorders, commonly referred to as addictions”— are affected by drug use
  • Effective community-based prevention programs exist and should be used more
  • Full integration of services and treatment with the rest of health care could make all health care higher quality and more effective
  • Recent health reform and parity laws will help with accessibility of treatment and services

Funding questions 

The incoming Trump administration has indicated that they want to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which had expanded mental health and substance use disorder coverage.

DiGirolamo says studies show that for every dollar a state puts into treatment, it saves $10 somewhere else, whether it be emergency room visits, hospital care, the criminal justice system or treating other health issues related to addiction.

He also emphasizes that the length of treatment is crucial, saying “a heroin addict is not going to get better with detox in 10 or 15 or 20 days of treatment. Most of them need a much longer stay and that costs money.”

DiGirolamo has introduced a bill for a number of years to put a tax on Marcellus shale gas. He wants to use that money for treatment programs research has identified as providing effective prevention and treatment, according to the surgeon general’s report.

“I think that a report like this gives us pause to take a serious look at this. It is a big problem. We are starting to really make strides and getting this under control, but boy do we still have a long way to go.”

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Keystone Crossroads