HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf and health agency secretaries Thursday announced a decrease in opioid drug overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018 and provided an update on efforts moving forward, including tuition and loan financial assistance for substance use disorder medical practitioners, a new hotline to help grandparents and other guardians access resources and upcoming free naloxone distribution days on Sept. 18 and 25.
“Today, I’m proud to announce that data recently released by the Drug Enforcement Agency shows the number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania was 18 percent lower in 2018 than in 2017,” Wolf said.
“This is a good piece of news in our ongoing fight; however, new challenges, including the increase of overdoses from other drugs in the past few weeks and months, mean that our work must continue to address the devasting effects of substance use disorder.
“We remain laser-focused and committed to continuing to address substance use disorder in the commonwealth.”
In addition to Wolf, Health Sec. Dr. Rachel Levine, Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller, Aging Secretary Robert Torres and Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith provided announcements and updates.
Teresa Miller detailed the creation of a helpline, KinConnector, for families in kinship care situations, including grandparents raising their grandchildren because of the opioid crisis. The KinConnector helpline can help kinship care families access local, state and federal resources.
“Kinship care guardians often make a selfless choice to care for a young child and ensure that they receive care and support with a person they know and trust, even when processing their own emotions around their family’s situation,” said Miller.
“They are navigating a big change, often years after raising their own children. KinConnector will be the bridge that helps families identify resources that can ease this process for the entire kinship family.”
KinConnector was established through Act 89 of 2018, which established a kinship navigator program for Pennsylvania.
The Bair Foundation was selected as the kinship navigator through a competitive procurement and will work with kinship care families to help them access resources and supports and connect with families in similar situations around the commonwealth.
“Pennsylvania’s Grandfamilies Workgroup has really helped us identify what kind of resources many older adults need when they suddenly find themselves as a caregiver for a grandchild or other family member, and the KinConnector helpline provides an immediate avenue to help,” said Torres.
“For anyone acting as a caregiver, it’s crucial to have a central place you can go for support and to connect with people in similar circumstances.”
KinConnector can be reached by calling 1-866-KIN-2111 (1-866-546-2111). The KinConnector helpline is staffed by knowledgeable, empathetic social service professionals prepared to help kinship care families understand and access resources that may be able to help them.
The helpline is the first step of KinConnector’s work. A Web site of resources is currently in development and will launch later this year.
Work to address the opioid crisis focuses on three areas: prevention, rescue and treatment. Collaborative work with state agencies, local, regional and federal officials has resulted in substantial action to address the opioid crisis.
A statewide naloxone giveaway in December of 2018 focused on rescue and received significant participation, putting more than 5,000 free kits into the hands of Pennsylvanians.
Since then, the Department of Health has been working to plan additional giveaway events. Levine announced that Sept. 18 and 25 will be used for statewide distribution of naloxone kits with additional details to be announced in the coming weeks.
“The success of the first statewide naloxone giveaway day and the fact that we cannot treat someone for opioid use disorder if they are dead, prompted the department to plan two additional giveaway events to get even more of this life-saving medication into the hands of people across the state,” Levine said.
Levine announced that the commonwealth has awarded 92 individuals with nearly $4.8 million in federal funding through Pennsylvania’s Substance Use Disorder Loan Repayment Program.
The program, first announced in May, provides funding to repay education loans for health care providers who are providing medical and behavioral health care and treatment for substance use disorder and opioid addiction in areas where there is high opioid use and where there are shortages of health care practitioners.
“Allocating this funding takes us one step closer to ensuring all those suffering from substance use disorder are receiving quality care,” Levine said.
“By rewarding health care practitioners focused on the opioid crisis with educational loan repayment, we are ensuring these dedicated professionals can focus on care.
“The awardees will be able to provide medical and behavioral health care services to those affected by this crisis. We want to make sure that all Pennsylvanians with the disease of addiction have the ability to be treated at a location convenient to them.”
A total of $1,892,948 was awarded to 34 medical care practitioners, and 58 behavioral and mental health practitioners received a total of $2,886,679 in awards.
The funding comes from the $55.9 million Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) grant meant to help states increase access to medication-assisted treatment of opioid use disorder, reduce opioid overdose related deaths through prevention, treatment and recovery and to reduce unmet treatment need.
Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith provided an update on the success of the department’s treatment and recovery efforts, including the tollfree helpline and warm handoff program, as well as noting what the department is seeing in terms of overdose numbers from other substances, such as methamphetamine and fentanyl.
“We should be proud of the success we’re seeing across Pennsylvania counties through warm hand-offs, the acceptance and use of medication-assisted treatment as the standard of care, and declines in opioid-related deaths,” Smith said.
“While this is great news, with the surge in stimulant usage we must continue to give treatment providers and communities the tools they need to effectively treat individuals, regardless of their drug of choice.”
“The Opioid Command Center will continue to meet weekly to identify strategies that will help us make strides in our battle against the opioid crisis,” Wolf said.
“And I am optimistic that with our ongoing collaborative efforts, we can continue to decrease overdose deaths – of all types – in our commonwealth and ultimately end this terrible scourge.”