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Exploding heroin epidemic requires both short- and long-term solutions

Sometimes, the answer is staring you in the face. It certainly is in the divergence of opinion between Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, regarding the national crisis of opioid addiction and overdose deaths.

Each man is approaching the problem from a different perspective. Both offer valid ideas that are not mutually exclusive. They should put their heads together and come up with a strategy that attacks the existing emergency and also the longer-term problem of dealing with its root causes.

But the fact is, this is the emergency that Schumer says it is. Heroin overdoses have become a scourge, often fed by inadvertent addiction to legally prescribed painkillers that are chemically similar – but much more expensive – than heroin. When patients become addicted and doctors cut them off, newly addicted users often turn to heroin to feed cravings that can be overpowering.

That would be dangerous enough at any time, but it is even more hazardous now, as dealers mix heroin with deadly fentanyl. That combination has helped to create a crisis in overdose deaths.

The scale of the crisis is suggested by the fact that police and other first responders are almost daily saving the lives of victims through use of Narcan, a fast-acting antidote. Many more simply die.

Users are dying at a rate that would once have been inconceivable, and that demands a response. Schumer wants to earmark $600 million to create more beds at treatment centers, among other things. And as a story in Friday’s Buffalo News noted, that money is meant to address an epidemic that claimed 26,648 lives in 2014, far more than the 285 killed in Superstorm Sandy, for which Congress eventually committed $60 billion.

Collins’ rational point is that throwing $600 million at this problem won’t do anything to solve the underlying, systemic issues that are driving the epidemic. Plainly, he is right, and Washington needs to commit to the broader, more comprehensive approach that Collins advocates.

But doing that critical work doesn’t absolve Congress of the duty to act now, in the face of a crisis. People are dying today, and in numbers that demand action. Whether $600 million is the right number is up to Congress to decide, but it simply cannot be that legislators survey an American crisis of human destruction yet do nothing to stem the losses.

Of course, Congress has been known to try to shirk such duties in the past. It took a shameful amount of time for it to respond to Superstorm Sandy, even though other natural disasters have been appropriately met with immediate federal assistance. It shouldn’t repeat that selfish mistake when so many lives have been lost already and the pace of the crisis is increasing.

In Erie County alone, deaths in 2015 from overdoses of heroin or other opioids were expected to double from the previous year. It’s a shocking increase in deaths, and it demands a multilayered approach.

Schumer and Collins are both onto something. If they and like-minded legislators can bridge their differences, they may be able to come up with a response that makes a difference now and over the long haul. That has to be the goal.