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Congress has an obligation to improve treatment options for opiate addictions

Addiction to prescription painkillers and the heroin addiction that often flows from it is a scourge increasingly affecting pregnant women and newborns.

As News staff reporter Lou Michel recently chronicled, growing numbers of pregnant women are seeking treatment for their addictions to opiates and other drugs. That number has more than quadrupled in recent years at Horizon Health Services, one of the region’s biggest providers of drug treatment and mental health services.

Horizon officials say that 29 expectant mothers sought treatment three years ago. Just last year, that number increased to 126 and officials say it could increase to 132 pregnant mothers by the end of this year. The state Department of Health estimates that in Erie County alone as many as 554 babies were born with addictions between 2010 and 2012.

This is a problem affecting families nationwide. For years The News has published stories about the devastating effects of opiate addiction on both users and their families. Some of those stories have been told by grieving family members after their loved ones died of an overdose or suicide.

The House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is delving into the matter. That is a worthwhile effort, and members might want to start by cutting through the bureaucracy that prevents people from getting help.

Local drug treatment specialists have cited the long waiting list for addicts who want to see physicians federally certified to prescribe buprenorphine, also known as Suboxone, as a form of treatment. The drug helps those addicted to kick the habit of prescription painkillers and heroin. The challenge becomes finding enough certified doctors and other health care specialists. That is where companion bills introduced by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., could be significant.

The legislation, supported by Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein and other officials, would allow certified doctors to see more addicts looking for buprenorphine and allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to write buprenorphine prescriptions for addiction treatment.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who introduced the bill in the Senate with Markey, demonstrated a clear understanding of the need to create more treatment opportunities, saying, “Treatment for prescription drug and heroin addiction should not be harder to access than the actual drugs destroying lives and communities.”