Originally published in the Star Ledger.
The opioid epidemic has cast a pall over our entire nation. Each day, 115 Americans lose their lives from an opioid overdose. The scale of this catastrophe makes it so there are few of us who haven't been touched in some way by addiction and its effects.
Since 2002, more Americans have perished each year from overdoses than the year before. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a startling 30 percent jump in emergency room visits for opioid overdoses from 2016 to 2017.
Of the 42,000 Americans who died in 2016 from opioids, 2,221 were our neighbors here in the Garden State. A recent study from the New Jersey Attorney General's Office found that drug deaths in the state could eclipse 3,000 this year, attributable almost entirely to opioids.
Congress and state governments have responded to the emergency with mostly reactive steps, by treating the effects of the crisis. Passage of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act under President Barack Obama was an important step, with the law focusing on overdoses and addiction treatment. State and federal prosecutors are beginning to shine a light on some of the distributors who have been greedily flooding our communities with prescription drugs.
It's time for Congress to be more proactive in addressing the root cause of the opioid crisis. Preventive measures must be a co-equal part of any effective effort to stop the epidemic by identifying ways to curb opioid abuse before it can start. That is why we have written legislation with a focus on prevention and reducing the prescribing of opioid painkillers where they are unnecessary and non-addictive treatments exist. And it is inspired by a successful idea pioneered here in New Jersey.
The staff at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Paterson had the foresight to recognize that emergency departments are uniquely positioned to combat opioid abuse. Pain is the primary reason people go to the emergency department. And because of the short-term care that emergency departments provide, it is nearly impossible to track someone who goes from ER to ER collecting pain medications.
A St. Joe's team, led by its emergency medicine chair, Dr. Mark Rosenberg, and hospital CEO, Kevin Slavin, decided to do something different. They created the Alternatives to Opiates -- or ALTO -- program, which seeks to reduce prescriptions for painkillers by utilizing non-opioid protocols to treat common painful conditions.
After only two years, the ALTO program has decreased emergency department opioid prescriptions at St. Joe's by more than 80 percent. The change was dramatic and word got out. Hospital administrators began contacting St. Joe's for advice on executing similar programs.
Our legislation, the Alternatives to Opioids in the Emergency Department Act, seeks to take St. Joseph's ALTO rubric nationwide, providing ERs with a blueprint for preventing overdoses from happening in the first place. By allocating modest funding to develop or expand ALTO programs in facilities across America, our bill would also compel the Department of Health and Human Services to issue recommendations for even broader implementation.
The initial success of ALTO has earned bipartisan support, and both the House and Senate are debating our proposals and moving them through the legislative process. Our goal is to see the first federal ALTO program become law this year.
President Donald Trump has discussed the opioid crisis exclusively with tough-on-crime bromides. But advocating for incarceration and capital punishment will only duplicate the mistakes we've made for decades.
We know that even if it meets all our ambitions, the ALTO program will not be a silver bullet. Turning the tide will require comprehensive social, economic, cultural and political changes. With a problem this pervasive, there can be no single remedy.
But we are confident that the model to counteract opioid addiction that has functioned so well at St. Joseph's can work in other parts of the country. A program started in New Jersey can be a critical contribution to ending this tragedy.