Column: Sessions' heroin strategy is just one piece of the puzzle. Much more is needed

Column: Sessions' heroin strategy is just one piece of the puzzle. Much more is needed
Posted at 1:40 PM, Aug 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-03 13:40:32-04

The key piece of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement Wednesday on the drug epidemic was the creation of a new unit to investigate fraud and abuse in the prescribing of opioid painkillers. A pilot program will "focus solely on investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids."

The task force will include U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman of Ohio, who introduced Sessions at the Columbus press conference.

Unfortunately, the plan Sessions outlined falls far short of what's needed to make a dent in this still-growing epidemic.

He barely mentioned addiction treatment, which professionals, parents and others say is woefully inadequate to meet the demand.

Sessions' plan will focus on prescription painkillers, but most overdose deaths are due to black-market drugs -- heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil. He hardly mentioned those.

READ: Overdosed and overrun: A state of crisis in Ohio

He said most illicit drugs come through "our Southern border," but ignored the China connection, which is where it's believed illicit fentanyl and carfentanil originate.

I asked members of WCPO's Heroin Advisory Group what they thought of the attorney general's plan. Those who responded also thought it fell short of what's needed.

Here's what they said: 

'We cannot arrest our way out of addiction'

"The doctor or pharmacist who is prescribing illegally and solely for profit is the one that does not need treatment and should be held responsible, so in this case arrest is appropriate.  But we cannot arrest our way out of addiction and must recognize that once we cut off that supply of very powerful opiates to those that are addicted, we must be ready to step in and connect them to treatment before they turn to the street with heroin, fentanyl and carfentinal, which is what we should have learned from when the pill mills were shut down.

"Yes, it is good to crack down on those illegally prescribing highly addictive opiates for profit, and it is good to make sure we do not go back to old tactics that did not work, ensuring we have a system in place to catch those addicted and be open enough to get them treatment instead of punishing addiction.

"Simply: reduce supply, while reducing demand and we will then see a reduction in the impact addiction has on us all."

Tom Synan, chief of the Newtown Police Department, co-chair, Hamilton County Heroin Task Force

'A continuum of services is needed'

"Until all Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) are treated as a medical disease, we will continue to struggle with trying to come up with solutions. Treating SUD’s as a medical disease (whether one agrees or understands or not) opens up more treatment options and coverage. It also gives more clarity as to how the legal system can approach issues around overdoses.

"A continuum of services is needed. Medically assisted treatment isn’t for everyone. Total abstinence isn’t for everyone. But available options should always be on the table ... If we had more treatment options available, more people could possibly have an opportunity to get help instead of continuing to use while waiting on a bed or their insurance to approve or deny the program they are seeking to get in." 

Anita Prater, department director, Brighton Recovery Center for Women, Florence, Kentucky.

'There needs to be collective, unified agreement'

"Two words come to mind when I read this: dumb dichotomies. Dumb dichotomies exist everywhere. It's the way we think and live by default. We naturally think 'either/or' and rarely consider the 'and.' There are very smart individuals setting up in different camps: criminal justice solutions or treatment solutions, for example. I see dumb dichotomies causing division and forcing well-educated, motivated and passionate people to choose sides.

"I think the time for dumb dichotomies is over. There needs to be a collective, unified agreement to reset the default and be very intentional about seeking the best solutions for all involved. Life-giving solutions will be identified and implemented when all the stakeholders come together and recognize each other's strengths and then leverage those strengths for the greater good. My hope would be that collectively we seek the 'and.' "

Tiffani Schmitz, West Chester

'There is no help for addicts'

"The war on drugs does not work.  Look how many people are in jail for nonviolent crimes. Try going to jail and see firsthand how there is no help for the addicts, only punishment. Creating a side war to combat a prescription issue is not going to solve any problems. The problem is heroin that's coming in from overseas, Afghanistan to be exact. We should focus on keeping it from entering our country in the first place."

Kylen Peck, recovering addict, Colerain Township

'We can't just focus on one strategy'

"We need a comprehensive approach - prevention, treatment, harm reduction, supply reduction. We can't just focus on one strategy. Yes, this is going to take a long time - just as it did with tobacco and drunk driving. 

"We need to get a comprehensive communication plan formulated for each key strategy - core at the messaging needs to be reducing the stigma and misunderstanding about the disease, and embracing the effective strategies to address the problem across the continuum."

Mary F. Haag, president and CEO, PreventionFIRST!

Don't go after suboxone providers

"Having the Department of Justice enforce immigration and also going after 'dealers' of illicit opioids is important and will help quell at least part of the problem. I also believe that going after pill mills is valuable.

"My concern is the Draconian tactics that might be utilized against treatment providers using suboxone products, which has ayes and nays in the judicial system, but has been shown in studies to outperform Vivitrol (of which there are limited studies.)

"I am hopeful that physicians using suboxone products are not targets in all this.

"My other concern is how insurance companies cap or limit treatment, especially medication-assisted treatment and also residential treatment."

Dr. Marc Whitsett, medical director, The Ridge addiction recovery center 


"He totally lost me from the point when he said, 'We must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse.' If he thinks that is the right approach then he clearly hasn't been paying attention. I'm very disappointed!"

Traci Hayes, Burlington, Kentucky., mother of Tawni Pina, who overdosed and died on Feb. 14, 2013

'We need more than a database'

"I applaud the efforts to gather data in an effort to slow down the prescribing of these dangerous drugs but am very concerned it only treats one aspect of this problem.

"We all realize that those currently suffering from substance use disorder will need more than a database to stop the cycle and return to their families and loved ones."

Dan Dufresne, Parents Helping Parents, Anderson Township