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Congresswoman Barbara Comstock

Representing the 10th District of Virginia


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Winchester Star Op-Ed: 'All Hands On Deck' - Solving Opioid Addiction Requires ‘All Of The Above’ Effort

June 4, 2016
In The News

Read this op-ed at The Winchester Star here.

Most of us have come to know the toll that the heroin epidemic has taken on the Shenandoah Valley — many in very personal ways. This is a public-health threat that is facing individuals and families from all socioeconomic groups.

During Apple Blossom weekend last month, the challenges of heroin addiction were once again highlighted when I was visiting with a Frederick County Sheriff’s Deputy. He received a call over his radio about a man with a needle in his arm — right out on the street, in public, in the afternoon.

Every week, I hear from family, friends, doctors, and health-care providers across the district about family members and friends suffering from drug addiction, which often begins with addiction to prescribed painkiller medication and then progresses. Just in the past week we saw an Army veteran succumb to an overdose from heroin in the Valley.

From 2013 to 2014, Virginia has seen an almost 15 percent increase in the number of drug overdoses. In 2014, the 728 deaths from opioid and heroin use in the state were larger than the deaths from car crashes. According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, there were 21 drug overdose deaths in the Valley in 2013, 33 overdose deaths in 2014, 30 deaths in 2015, and 11 drug overdose deaths in the Valley so far this year.

In a five-day period in April alone, seven people in the region overdosed on heroin, including a woman who was six months pregnant. Thankfully, because first responders are using Narcan to save people from life-threatening overdoses, none were fatal. But we know they will need help to prevent an overdose from happening again. This drug is a killer.

I first started working on this issue in the House of Delegates, and I have continued that work in Congress, serving as a member of the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic. We were pleased that numerous bills the task force advocated for and co-sponsored were voted on in the House recently and passed on a strong bipartisan basis.

These bills will increase education and prevention efforts, as well as improve services and treatment for addiction, while strengthening efforts to get these drugs out of our communities. It’s an all-of-the-above approach that encompasses 18 pieces of legislation that will help tackle this disease.

This legislation, for example, requires the General Accounting Office to submit a report to Congress on Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is when a newborn has been exposed to opioid-like drugs during pregnancy. The aim of the report is to understand NAS and develop ways to best care for those who cannot care for themselves.

When I visited the Winchester Medical Center last year, I saw firsthand newborns afflicted with NAS and it broke my heart to see newborn babies suffering from withdrawal. The doctors and nurses who are working with newborns around-the-clock are truly guardian angels for these youngest victims of drug addiction, and the program at the Winchester Medical Center can be a model for the country.

This legislation also provides resources through the Department of Justice that will foster a comprehensive opioid reduction program which will include drug courts. Winchester, and Frederick and Clarke counties have pooled together resources to hire Lauren Cummings to be executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition.

The first goal of the Coalition has been to start a drug court beginning in July. Drug courts can focus on treatment for drug abuse rather than incarceration.

I have appreciated the opportunity to learn from the many leaders of the Coalition, and I also appreciate the insights shared by federal, state and local law-enforcement officials at a meeting on heroin held in Winchester.

One clear message I heard from these community leaders is that we cannot arrest our way out of this public health crisis. Conquering this challenge will require a cooperative effort from our community. This has to be an "all hands on deck" solution, and I am committed to joining with you to end this devastating plague that is destroying too many lives and families in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

Barbara Comstock represents Virginia’s 10th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.