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Appalling effects of the opioid epidemic demand an all-out effort to save lives

Americans are dying at a furious rate as an epidemic of opioid addiction infects every corner of the nation.

The victims of this scourge are perhaps too easy to ignore. After all, the stereotype of the heroin junkie is a self-absorbed loser who would rather steal money for his fix than live a productive life. Indeed, there probably are some people who fit that profile, but millions of others don’t. The landscape changed with the arrival of powerful pain medications such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Doctors prescribed those powerfully addictive medicines to suffering patients. But when the prescriptions were cut off, those newly addicted people could find relief via a chemically similar but less expensive, easy-to-get drug: heroin.

This scourge would qualify as a public health crisis on its own, but the stakes are even higher, because dealers are spiking heroin with fentanyl, which makes the drug much more powerful and much more deadly. The numbers in Erie County offer a frightening look into what is a national crisis. The total number of opiate-related deaths in 2015 is still being tabulated, but is on track to double from 2014, and could double again this year. In Buffalo, alone, at least 25 deaths have been recorded. In the first 10 days of this month, 10 lives were lost to opioids.

“The staggering reality is that if we continue at this pace of doubling overdose fatalities each year, we will lose a thousand lives to heroin in 2017,” State Police Maj. Steven A. Nigrelli said earlier this year. “This is not a neighborhood problem. This is a crisis for society.”

A crisis for society, he said. Not for Erie County, not for New York State. This is a national epidemic that demands a serious, comprehensive local and national response. There may be room for debate over exactly how much additional funding is necessary, but it is plain that more beds are needed, especially for people who cannot otherwise afford them. That’s the hard fact. People will die without them. Some people can afford treatment, but what about those who, through no fault of their own, become hopelessly addicted and walk on the edge of death? And what, for that matter, about the desperate street junkie whose life could be redeemed with treatment?

It is also necessary to work to prevent the ferocious addiction that leads people to their deaths. That has to include reconsidering the protocols on who should be prescribed these medications, how they should be monitored and when interventions are needed to deal with the threat or fact of addiction.

It’s easy to turn away, but this is a time to do what is not easy. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which offers grants to governments and nonprofits to fight addiction. Unfortunately, the Senate turned down Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s attempt to add another $600 million in emergency funds to the effort.

“It’s plain and simple: Either you’re for expanding access and funding for naloxone to prevent overdose deaths, along with other lifesaving measures, or you’re against it,” Schumer said, referring to the antidote Narcan. “It is clear some in the Senate are against it and are only willing to talk the talk and not walk the walk about fighting the heroin and opioid drug crisis.”

There are grass-roots efforts underway to support and educate addicts’ loved ones. In one example, a town hall-style meeting on the deadly epidemic drew 500 people to Buffalo’s North Park Theatre earlier this month.

“There isn’t one magical solution. It will take all of us participating to help with prevention and early intervention,” said Anne Constantino, president and chief executive officer of Horizon Health Services.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has proposed spending $400,000 to step up the fight against addiction.

The Erie County Health Department offers free classes to train citizens in how to use Narcan, the opiate antidote. While Narcan can save an addict’s life if administered in time, it does nothing to treat the addiction.

Suboxone does treat the addiction, weaning addicts off heroin. It needs to be more widely available.

These steps and many more are vital to dealing with the opioid menace. The time for discussing whether action is required is past. People are dying. Families are being devastated. The question now is what else can we do?