SALISBURY — It’s easier to find a drug dealer than it is to find help.
That stark observation was one of several shared with U.S. Senator Ben Cardin during a roundtable discussion on the state’s opioid epidemic Wednesday. The event, held at Peninsula Regional Medical Center (PRMC), gave local medical officials, law enforcement officers and business people the chance to voice their thoughts and concerns on the area’s growing heroin problem.
“The crisis is a reality,” said Peggy Naleppa PRMC’s president and CEO. “It touches all of us directly or indirectly. It’s not going away.”
According to Naleppa, PRMC, the eighth largest hospital in Maryland, treated 82 heroin overdoses in 2014. That number increased to 100 in 2015. By May of this year, doctors had already treated 171 patients for heroin overdoses.
“We can effect change,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”
State Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes and state Senator Addie Eckardt said Maryland’s leaders were doing what they could to address the epidemic. Sample-Hughes said effective models from other parts of the state and the successful use of Vivitrol, a drug designed to help treat opioid dependence, were being studied.
Eckardt said the Eastern Shore didn’t have the workforce needed to address opioid addiction. She said there was a shortage of trained psychiatrists, counselors and the like in the area that couldn’t be addressed with recruitment from other regions because Maryland’s licensing process was so slow.
“We have a shortage,” Cardin agreed. “It’s particularly pronounced in rural areas.”
The healthcare professionals present said salary levels came into play as did student loan debt.
Karen Poisker, PRMC’s vice president of population health, said she’d been trying to fill one such position for two years.
“It needs to be looked at more creatively in my mind,” she said.
Kutresa Lankford, the clinical advisor for addiction in Worcester County, said that while drugs like Vivitrol could help, it was counselors who were really needed to help individuals fight addiction.
“We need boots on the ground, addictions counselors,” she said. “We do not get paid even on the same grade as a social worker. We should. It’s a difficult field. If we don’t have people that are passionate, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Eckardt said she thought locals should be encouraged to pursue roles in the fight against heroin. She said healthcare programs like those offered at Wor-Wic Community College were critical in providing the necessary education and needed resources so they could be expanded.
“I think we need to get back to growing our own,” she said.
Cardin said he was aware of the concerns raised and would take them into account as legislators considered appropriations in the future.
“We’ll take that back and try to do something with that,” he said.
Sandy Angello of the nonprofit Project OUT said she thought the nationwide heroin epidemic had its roots in Adderall, which is prescribed to treat ADHD.
“I think pills are still the main source of what’s out there,” she said.
She believes that since the problem for most people begins with prescription pills, whether it’s Adderall or pain medication, primary care physicians should be involved in treating opioid addiction.
“They’re the ones giving the pain medications so why can’t they be involved in solving the problem that started the whole epidemic to begin with?” she said.
Cardin said statistics showed that 80 percent of heroin users began by misusing prescription drugs.
“The number of pills that are out there on the streets today is astronomical,” he said.
PRMC Chief Medical Informatics Officer Chris Snyder said that the federal government tasked doctors with treating pain. He said the heroin epidemic was a challenge for everyone involved. He said during one 12-hour shift last week, he treated three patients who had overdosed on heroin. One died, one was administered Narcan and one was treated and sent to counseling.
“She was right back this week,” he said.
Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis agreed that it was challenging. He said his officers struggled when they responded to overdoses because, if 911 was called, they were rarely able to charge anyone even if drugs were visible.
“We can’t charge them with anything under the law because it’s a 911 call that came in,” Lewis said. “It’s state law when we respond to 911 overdoses.”
Lewis said much of the country’s drug problem was caused by the import of drugs from other countries.
“Until we have border security, we’ll never have homeland security,” he said.
He added that his department could help by making more traffic stops but said he didn’t have the necessary resources. He also said aggressively stopping vehicles suspected of carrying drugs into the area could also result in accusations of racial profiling.
Cardin stressed that when there was specific information that led police to stop a vehicle, that was within their rights and was not profiling.
Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby told Cardin that in his county, law enforcement officers were taking aim at the heroin problem by treating each overdose as a crime scene. Cell phones are seized and witnesses interviewed. Recently, dealers who sold heroin that resulted in an overdose death have been charged with manslaughter in Worcester County.
“I’m a firm believer in holding people accountable,” he said.
Cardin thanked those who took part in the roundtable discussion and said he’d continue to do what he could to address opioid addiction.
“This has been extremely helpful,” he said. “There is no simple answer.”