The Obama administration is hosting a summit on heroin and prescription drug abuse Thursday. Government and public health officials and treatment experts will discuss the marked increase in opiate overdose deaths and ways to hopefully stem the tide. It's the second gathering the White House has convened to try to address the staggering surge in overdose deaths over the past 15 years.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of drug overdose deaths more than doubled from 1999 to 2010. Most of it has been driven by powerful prescription opioids and a recent shift that many users are making away from prescription drugs to heroin, which can be cheaper and more easily accessible.
One guest at the summit will be Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. In January, Shumlin devoted his entire state of the state address to the "full blown heroin crisis" his state is facing. New statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC show that the crisis is not abating.
According to new data from the CDC, the number of drug poisoning deaths — overdoses — related to heroin jumped by 45 percent from 2010 to 2011, the latest data available. And one of the most worrisome things, public health officials said, is that the number of people who are dying from overdosing on prescription drugs hasn't dropped — about half of the 41,340 people who died of drug poisoning in 2011 took prescription opiates.
"What we're seeing is an increase on the heroin side in terms of national statistics, and no decline on the prescription drug side," said Leonard Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC.
Heroin deaths are notoriously hard to determine — especially when other drugs and alcohol are present in a person's system — and are often under-reported, Paulozzi said. Prosecutors are now asking police to treat overdose deaths like crimes, and coroners to perform autopsies as quickly as possible and preserve evidence. Prosecutors are increasingly charging heroin dealers with manslaughter or other applicable charges in overdose deaths. Many states are allowing first responders and, in some states, civilians, to carry Naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Shumlin and governors of four other New England states met this week to create a regional strategy to combat the rise in overdoses and deaths from heroin and other opiates. The numbers show that New England is being hit particularly hard by heroin. According to new data from the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of people being admitted to medical or rehabilitation facilities primarily for heroin use from 2008 to 2013 has jumped by 233 percent in Vermont, 75 percent in Maine and 45 percent in New Hampshire. Heroin admissions rose in 25 of the 26 states reporting data, but some of the states — including South Dakota and Alabama — had very low admission rates.
Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is hosting Thursday's conference, has traveled throughout New England to work on the issue. A number of public health officials and others from the region will attend Thursday's meeting.
"What’s happened is it’s hit a crescendo that it’s affecting every community," said Cheryl Bartlett, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. She is particularly worried about a rise in the number of young people using heroin. "When it hits that peak, it really becomes an issue that we can't avoid anymore."