Voices of Alaska: We all play a role in stemming addiction crisis

  • By Sen. Dan Sullivan
  • Sunday, July 31, 2016 6:56pm
  • Opinion

I had an extremely moving meeting in Washington, D.C. last fall with a group of Alaskan women. They were in the capital to attend the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally, where thousands from across the country were raising awareness in the fight against addiction. Each of the women in the meeting had their own powerful story of facing addiction. They were incredibly courageous. That was the most poignant and powerful meeting I’ve had as a U.S. Senator. It opened up my eyes to the problem of addiction and what this scourge was doing to Alaskans all across the state and Americans all across the country.

As the conversation drew to a close, there was not a dry eye in the room and I knew that action needed to be taken to help my fellow Alaskans back home who are struggling with this epidemic. In D.C. Congress recently passed, and the president signed into law, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which I cosponsored at the urging of the women I met with. It will provide much-needed resources to communities to fight the epidemic. It’s a good step, but much more needs to be done on the local, state and federal levels.

I will convene a Wellness Summit, which will be held on August 4th at Mat-Su College in Palmer, dedicated to conquering the opioid and heroin epidemic. Consider these troubling statistics related to this epidemic:

— Deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs and heroin continue to be the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans, surpassing car accidents and gun violence.

— Since 2010, the number of heroin-associated overdose deaths increased more than ten-fold in 2015.

— In 2012, Alaska’s prescription opioid pain reliever (OPR) overdose death rate was more than double the national average.

— Between 2009–2013, heroin-related admissions to publicly-funded substance use treatment centers nearly doubled.

Remember that the faces behind these numbers include our sons and daughters, our parents, our community leaders, our neighbors and our friends

Federal officials from several agencies will attend to hear what unique obstacles Alaskans face when in recovery, as well as witness the indomitable spirit of Alaskans who have overcome those obstacles.

Whether you are a caretaker, a medical professional, a family member, someone who is struggling from addiction, or friend who has experience with addiction, a young person resisting the pressure to experiment, or a citizen looking for more information, I would be honored if you would attend to help.

At the summit, the Surgeon General of the United States will join Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer for an in-depth discussion on this topic. Dr. Vivek Murthy has been touring the country with his “Turn the Tide Rx” campaign to meet with doctors and relay the message that doctors can stop prescription opioid abuse. When I met with Dr. Murthy earlier this year, he spoke with great knowledge and compassion on the issue with a determination to change the status quo. I am excited for him to join us and connect with Alaskans.

The second in charge at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield, will be the key note speaker. Among other things, HHS oversees grants for community health centers, guidance for opioid prescribing practices, and regulations on treatment centers. HHS has a budget of $1.1 trillion dollars and almost 80,000 employees, many of whom work in Alaska. Dr. Wakefield and HHS need to understand that Alaskans are dedicated to eradicating this epidemic, and the HHS expertise and resources can play a major role in that effort.

Dr. Jennifer Lee, Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Deputy Undersecretary for Health Policy and Services, and Dr. Karen Drexler, VHA Acting National Mental Health Program Director for Addictive Disorders will both attend and present to make sure that the state with the most veterans per capita is not forgotten in their efforts to best care for veterans.

I am committed to focusing our time together at the summit to produce tangible solutions that the attending federal officials and I can take back to D.C.

Many of the women I met last fall will be there, along with prominent Alaskan officials, experts, and community leaders to ensure that Alaska’s story of dealing with this crisis is told. Please join us at the summit to represent Alaskans dedicated to conquering the opioid and heroin epidemic and to guide the conversations to produce solutions to direct our federal guests.

For the full agenda, as well as how to watch the summit through a live stream, please visit my website: https://www.sullivan.senate.gov/wellness-summit

There is hope for our future. I need your help to empower those in need, their loved ones, and all Alaskans on this journey of recovery. All of us have a role in helping stem this crisis, and all are needed to ensure that we don’t lose another person to addiction.

Dan Sullivan represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate.

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