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Pa. enrolls in national program to sharpen fight against pain-pill abuse

Pennsylvania has signed up with a national program designed to share new strategies for combating the abuse of prescription painkillers and other opioid drugs.

The National Governors Association chose Pennsylvania and six other states to take part in a learning lab that will give participants tools to curb opioid pain pill and heroin abuse, a problem that is plaguing the U.S. as a whole.

In Pennsylvania, more than 3,500 people died of drug overdoses last year, or about 10 people a day. Most drug-related deaths were attributed to prescription pain pills and heroin, according to a report by the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association.

The state is looking for new solutions to prevent drug fatalities, Gov. Tom Wolf said.

In June, Wolf called for a special session of the General Assembly this fall, in which lawmakers would consider bills related to opioid addiction, many of which already have been moving through the legislature.

Now, it appears the special session is not going to happen, but Wolf said there will still be “dedicated work while we’re all here in the fall,” including through the learning lab.

“The opportunity to participate in this program will guide and inform future practices in helping Pennsylvanians suffering from the disease of addiction,” Wolf said.

Learning lab to last six months

The learning lab, expected to last six months, is entitled “State Strategies for Reducing Overdose and Deaths from Heroin and Illicit Fentanyl,” the governors association said.

Other participants are Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Pennsylvania has selected state officials to participate in the learning lab including people from the governor’s policy office, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Participants will take part in a conference call on Friday, where they will be assigned work in preparation for a follow-up meeting in Rhode Island, according to Beth Melena, spokesperson for Wolf’s office.

The meeting in Rhode Island is slated to take place on Oct. 20 and 21.

Rhode Island has a well-developed plan to combat drug abuse and will allow participating states to study its plan and then apply those lessons at home.

Rhode Island has done some innovative work around data sharing, such as gathering information on the trafficking of heroin and illicit fentanyl, so that it can improve its response to where and how drugs move through the state, Melena said.

Heroin, fentanyl and prescription pain pills are all considered opioids.

Heroin, which can be snorted or injected, is cheaper than prescription pain medication on the street, making it easier to find.

Fentanyl, which is typically used to treat people who are in extreme pain, is much stronger than heroin. Drug dealers are adding fentanyl to heroin, making the dosages more deadly.

In Lancaster County, 14 people have died after using heroin or other opioids in the past 22 days, according to a recent news report, which highlighted the spike in fentanyl.

Prescription pain pills can be highly addictive, and studies show that although 259 million people were prescribed an opioid in 2012, those pills are said to have contributed to increases in heroin use.

“As we all know, the opioid epidemic does not discriminate – it affects Pennsylvanians from all walks of life,” Wolf said. “We can and should do more to address this matter that is plaguing all of our communities.”

Lenay Ruhl

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