Highlight on Pennsylvania: State hit hard by opioid addiction, struggles to find solutions

Although Pennsylvania is due to receive $1.8 million in federal funding to combat opioid abuse, none of that money is going to Pittsburgh. Although the rising number of heroin deaths in the city may seem to indicate that the area is in drastic need of the funding, heroin use is a widespread problem throughout the state.

Federal funding

On March 11, 2016, HHS announced a $94 million award to health centers across the country to be directed toward combating the heroin epidemic. This funding was made available by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) (P.L. 111-148), and went to 45 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. Estimates of opioid-related deaths have risen sharply: unintentional overdoses from pain medications has almost quadrupled since 1999, and the agency believes that deaths related to heroin increased 39 percent in one year, from 2012 to 2013.

Pennsylvania’s overdose journey

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health studied accidental overdose deaths in the state over time and found that the number has increased 14 times in the last three-and-a-half decades. The deaths were concentrated in southwestern Pennsylvania, around Philadelphia, and near Scranton. The Lehigh County Coroner was forced to request more money to cover drug overdose autopsies in 2015, Northampton County had 50 percent more opiate related deaths in the first three months of 2015 than the entirety of 2014. Although adults ages 34-44 had the greatest increase in overdose death rates since 1979, the younger 25-34 year old age bracket had the highest death rate in 2014. Death rates were higher in men than women, but the death rate in young white women was the fastest-climbing demographic. The report also noted that non-fatal overdoses requiring hospitalizations surged dramatically.

Small towns not exempt

An NPR reported traveled to a rural Pennsylvania county to see how a small town is impacted by addiction. A paramedic revealed that heroin is cheap and easily available from surrounding towns, and that there is no pattern to the addiction. He spoke of seeing young and old, well-off and poor using the drug. The paramedics are familiar with using naloxone, a rescue drug that reverses an overdose and can wake an unresponsive patient. As of the second week of March, they had already used the drug on ten patients. He admitted that they never have to worry about their stockpile expiring because they go through it so quickly.

Schools shaken by tragedy

High schools in the area reported losing six students to heroin overdoses in a two-year span. Some believe that small-town boredom lends itself to drug use, and Kutztown Area High School has formed a group to provide diversion for students, such as basketball tournaments. The state mandates a student assistance team, which includes teachers, counselors, and a contracted specialist, who keep an eye out for at-risk kids. Although it is difficult to know whether these groups help at all, the staff believes their efforts are crucial.

Pittsburgh left out of funding, despite high overdose rates

Pennsylvania received a $1.8 million chunk of the $94 million in federal funding, but the Pittsburgh region is left out in the cold. Philadelphia is the number one area in the state for heroin overdoses, but Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, runs second. A local Pittsburgh paper reported that the county lost 157 people to heroin overdoses in 2014, which rose to 217 in 2015. An HHS spokesman stated that the funding awards were competitive, but did not say whether any southwestern Pennsylvania health centers applied. He did note that several Pittsburgh treatment centers are already federal funding recipients.