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Alfonse D'Amato

Long Island can’t give up the fight against opioids

Posted

Make no mistake about it: Long Island is losing its battle against the heroin and opioid addiction that is plaguing our local neighborhoods.

This new war on drugs includes opioid use, which in many cases leads to heroin addiction. Opioids do not discriminate based on race or socioeconomic status. And they’re not in the neighborhoods you think. They’re in Massapequa. They’re in Garden City. They’re in Huntington.

The number of fatal heroin overdoses has been on the rise. Nassau and Suffolk counties have both had more than 100 deaths per year in each of the past three years.

The heroin addict of today is different from those of the 1960s or ’70s. Today’s typical addict starts using at around age 23, is more likely to live in an affluent suburb and was probably led to heroin through painkillers prescribed by his or her doctor.

Young adults or teens who become hooked on doctor-prescribed opiates often switch to heroin due to the drastic difference in price. Heroin is cheaper than prescription drugs.

Unbelievably, Suffolk County had more heroin-related overdose deaths than any other county in New York from 2009 to 2013. In those 60 months, at least 337 people died of overdoses. Nassau County isn’t far behind, with the fifth-highest number of fatal overdoses. Things have gotten so bad that Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has dubbed the Long Island Expressway Heroin Highway.

Suffolk County has done some brilliant out-of-the-box thinking. Officials decided to hold accountable not the dealers or the users, but the pharmaceutical industry. The county is suing the makers of the popular pain medication OxyContin and other drug manufacturers, alleging that they have misled the public and medical professionals about the dangers of these painkillers.

Suffolk County listed 11 pharmaceutical companies in its lawsuit, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and Endo. The suit compares the companies to drug dealers, claiming that they encouraged doctors to prescribe these powerful painkillers without warning them about the high risk of addiction.

I applaud Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and the Legislature for their determination to hold these companies accountable. You have to start somewhere, and holding Big Pharma’s toes to the fire is a great place to start.

It’s not just a local problem. For years the federal government has been discussing the flagrant abuse of pain pills in the U.S. Nearly 80 percent of the world’s pain pills are consumed in this country, even though we comprise only 5 percent of the world’s population.

These numbers are staggering. Clearly there’s a problem in our medical system. Obamacare has only made the problem worse by allowing patient-satisfaction surveys to determine how $1.5 billion in Medicare payments are allocated to hospitals. These surveys contain questions such as, “During the hospital stay, how often did the hospital staff do everything to control or help you with your pain?” And, “How often was your pain well controlled?”

This is a joke! Addicts are going into hospitals demanding narcotics by name, and if doctors don’t give them to them, the hospitals get bad reviews and less funding. Initiatives such as this continue to inhibit the medical system against the opioid plague.

More counties around the nation should follow in Suffolk’s footsteps. The only way the pharmaceutical companies are going to change is if we hit them in their pockets.

We are losing the battle against heroin and opioid addiction, and because we are, teens and young adults are losing their lives. It’s time to take a stand against this scourge.

Friends, in closing, last week we proved once again our resiliency as Americans. On the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we proved that we will never, ever forget our friends and family members from Long Island and around the country who lost their lives on that infamous day. Rest in peace, friends. We remain strong and united against terrorism. God bless America.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.