Overdose epidemic topic of roundtable

February 19, 2014
From left, Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Attorney David Hickton take part in a roundtable discussion of prescription drug and heroin overdoses. - Kathie Warco / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Drug overdoses, either from prescription medication or illegal substances, are certainly not new.

But Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone said something needs to be done to stem the increasingly deadly epidemic.

“I believe that by working together, we can stem the lethality,” Vittone said. “Many of these deaths could have been prevented. Left in the wake of those who died is heartbreak for the survivors.”

Last year in Washington County, more than 60 people died as a result of overdoses either of heroin or a combination of prescription medication.

And 2014 is proving to be no different. Washington County Coroner Tim Warco said he was called to a home over the weekend after a 14-year-old girl found her mother dead of an apparent overdose.

“The mother was found with a syringe fully loaded,” Warco said. “But she died before she got the chance to use it.”

The overdose epidemic was the topic of a roundtable discussion Wednesday hosted by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey along with Vittone. Law enforcement and medical personnel were joined on the panel by experts in the field of drug and alcohol addiction.

“This is something we should all care about,” Vittone said. “Our major crimes, whether robbery, homicide, prostitution, elder abuse, embezzlement or even theft of scrap metal, can almost all be attributed to drugs.”

Canonsburg police Detective Sgt. Al Coghill said you cannot talk about prescription drugs without talking about heroin.

“Prescription drugs are the foundation,” Coghill said. “Painkillers are going at $60 to $80 each and heroin sells for $10 to $15 a bag. Narcotics are opioids on the legal side as pain medication. It is being outpriced so they are moving to heroin.”

Coghill said that many are spending as much as $300 a day to feed their habit.

“They don’t work so I ask, where they are getting the money?” Coghill said. “They may be prostituting themselves or stealing. I’d say that 90 percent of our crimes in Canonsburg are drug-related and that is an understatement.”

“I have talked with some addicts who admit to committing 12 to 20 crimes before they got caught,” he added.

Ashley Potts, an addiction specialist for Washington County Drug and Alcohol Commission, said it was not long ago that she was robbing family and friends to feed her addiction that started at the age of 13 with oxycodone. By the age of 17, she was shooting heroin intravenously. At 20, she was a homeless heroin addict.

“I have more than one felony conviction on my record,” Potts said. “It has been a long journey. I wasn’t born bad. It was my addiction.”

While she is now on track to enter a master’s program, Potts said her record made it difficult. She said she was forced out of some colleges because she was denied internships because of her record.

David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said it is important to make the distinction between the addicts who are ill and drug traffickers.

“We are focused intently on the demand side, where we’ve seen a huge uptick in trafficking,” Hickton said. “A large number of our prosecutors are working on it and the pathway between prescription pills and heroin.”

Hickton and David Freed, president of the state’s District Attorneys Association, agreed that Pennsylvania was one of the worst states in prescription monitoring. The monitoring program would help prevent “pill shopping” by addicts who go from doctor to doctor for pain medication.

Freed said the initial bill did not give law enforcement access to the information for investigative purposes while giving access to pharmacists and pharmacy techs. An amendment has been included to allow police access by showing probable cause.

Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director for the Pittsburgh Poison Center, said doctors have to move away from opiate use for treating pain. Gary Tennis, secretary of the state drug and alcohol programs, said doctors may need to change the mindset of eliminating all pain.

“They have to switch from the idea of eliminating pain to functionality,” Tennis said.

Cheryl Andrews, executive director of the Washington Drug and Alcohol Commission, said she feels like she is unarmed in the middle of a battlefield. She told Toomey that a new, pure hydrocodone painkiller was approved by the Federal Drug Administration last year and is set to hit the market next month.

“If you read the warning label, there is a potential for overdose,” she said, adding that it also should not be prescribed as needed for pain.

The state secretary said people need to get rid of unneeded prescription pain medication. Vittone also urged residents to make use of the drug drop-off boxes at police departments throughout the county.

Rodney Rohrer, manager at Ambulance and Chair Service, said crews are responding to more 911 calls for people claiming to be in pain.

“They know that an ambulance will respond so hopefully they can get pain medication as a quick treatment at the hospital,” Rohrer said, “I’ve had one patient go to one hospital and then call 911 when they got back home with a request to go to another hospital because they didn’t get the pain medication at the first.”

Both Andrews and Freed also see the need for a Good Samaritan Law, where the person who is with someone who has overdosed can call for help without fear of prosecution,

Vittone believes education is just as important as law enforcement.

“Hopefully, education can keep them away from this poison,” he said.

Toomey called it a “huge” problem and one he is hearing about across the state. “We have to solve this problem,” Toomey said. “It is getting way too big to let it keep going.”

Kathie O. Warco has covered the police beat and transportation for the Observer-Reporter for more than 25 years. She graduated from Duquesne University with a degree in journalism.

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