After Record Year for Fatal Overdoses, New York City Targets Opioids

Post Date: March 14, 2017

Originally seen in The Wall Street Journal


New York City will spend $38 million annually to combat an opioid epidemic that killed more than 1,000 New Yorkers last year, city officials said Monday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the initiative, dubbed HealingNYC, would reduce the number of opioid deaths by 35% during the next five years.

The funding will support the distribution of 100,000 kits of naloxone, the drug-overdose-reversal drug, to treatment programs, city shelters and pharmacies. All 23,000 New York Police Department patrol officers also will be equipped with the kits.

“We are focused on the people of New York City but it is impossible to ignore the fact that we now have a national problem on our hands,” Mr. de Blasio said. “It is an urban problem, it is a rural problem, simultaneously.”

City officials said an estimated 1,300 New Yorkers died of a drug overdose in 2016, the highest total on record. About 1,075 of those overdoses involved an opioid. Officials said they expected to have the final tally in April.

Almost 90% of the fatal opioid overdoses last year involved heroin or fentanyl—a drug 50 times more potent than heroin. Officials said 18% of the overdoses involved prescription painkillers.

The mayor blamed the rise in opioids on the pharmaceutical industry, which, he said, “encouraged the overuse of addictive pain killers.

“We literally have a reality now where more and more people get hooked on heroin because they first went through the overuse of a legally prescribed drug,” Mr. de Blasio said.

PhRMA, a trade group representing companies in the pharmaceutical industry, said they are committed to fighting prescription drug abuse. A spokeswoman for group said companies are working to develop alternative medicines to reduce risk of abuse.

“One of the most important steps we can take is to mandate ongoing prescriber education based on evidence-based clinical guidelines to inform appropriate treatment of chronic and acute pain,” a spokeswoman said.

Some big pharmaceutical companies have paid large fines over their marketing of opioid painkillers. In 2007, Purdue Frederick Co., an affiliate of Purdue Pharma, and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin, and agreed to pay $634.5 million in fines.

The initiative will support education programs in schools and hospitals to raise awareness of the epidemic and encourage doctors to prescribe medication for shorter durations and lower doses. The city also will aim to increase access to methadone and other medication to treat addiction in emergency departments and clinics throughout the city.

Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the NYPD would begin investigating every overdose—both fatal and nonfatal—to identify dealers.

He said survivors of overdoses who help investigators don’t need to fear being arrested. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” he added.

The NYPD investigated more than 380 overdose cases last year to identify drug dealers, and officers used naloxone to save more than 50 people. Police also seized more than 830 pounds of heroin in 2016.

The department will add more than 80 investigators to tackle the epidemic and 50 lab technicians to test heroin. The NYPD used to test heroin at crime scenes, but fentanyl made it potentially deadly for officers, Mr. O’Neill said.

Mr. O’Neill said most of the heroin is coming from overseas, specifically Mexico and Asia.