More than nine hundred people attended “Revive RVA,” on October 26, a regional summit organized by Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover Counties and the City of Richmond to share information about the problem of opioid abuse in the region and discuss ways to improve the community’s response. In welcoming remarks to attendees, Henrico County Chair Patricia O’Bannon noted that substance abuse crosses jurisdictional borders and affects residents regardless of age, race, gender, or class, and urged participants to contribute ideas for new approaches to combatting the epidemic. Chesterfield County Chair Dorothy A. Jaeckle discussed how repercussions of the epidemic have affected the community, including increasing numbers of children in foster care. Hanover County Chair Angela Kelly-Wiecek spoke about prevention and intervention efforts in Hanover County, including awareness-raising campaigns and the distribution of drug deactivation kits to reduce the possibility that unused prescription painkillers will be diverted for recreational use.
Dr. Robert L. DuPont, President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., and former “drug czar” for the Nixon and Ford Administrations, spoke about the current opioid epidemic as an opportunity to improve addiction prevention and treatment for all substance abuse, noting that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50. He stressed the need for prevention efforts to begin with children, and for this message to be delivered by teachers and pediatricians in addition to families. In his discussion of ways to improve treatment, he noted that treatment programs are often too short and “siloed” to be effective, frequently leading to relapse; he contended that treatment should be more integrated into the overall health care system, with doctors involved in long-term prevention of relapses. Lastly, he encouraged the continued involvement of law enforcement in combating the supply of illegal drugs, particularly the increasingly potent synthetic fentanyl derivatives that are manufactured in laboratories.
The second keynote speaker, Dr. A. Omar Abubaker, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the VCU School of Dentistry, spoke both as a medical provider who at times must prescribe painkillers and as the father of a son who died of an overdose in 2014. He discussed his efforts to change guidelines for prescribing opioid painkillers within his department at VCU and his work to educate dental students and fellow dentists about the risks of relying on opioids to manage patients’ pain. He reiterated that the underlying problem of addiction in general must be addressed, and pointed out that other countries have achieved drastic reductions in drug overdose deaths through such methods as access to medication-assisted treatment; he reminded attendees that similar success is possible in the United States by building on the strengths of the American health care and educational systems.
Six breakout sessions were offered on topics such as the emergency medical services and public safety response to the opioid crisis, perspectives from the K-12 system and higher education, and reports from state policymakers. Moderators reported on these sessions after lunch. Several common themes that emerged were the need to pursue harm reduction strategies as a short-term way of keeping opioid users alive while they pursue recovery; the need to enhance school curricula to educate children about the dangers of prescription drugs; the need to improve access to treatment programs and reduce stigma associated with the disease of addiction; the need to improve physicians’ understanding of addiction and prescribing patterns; and the need to enhance peer recovery programs, including the use of peers in hospital emergency departments to encourage drug users who have been revived from overdoses to enter treatment. Several panelists remarked on positive steps taken at the state level, including the recent implementation of substance abuse treatment benefits for Medicaid recipients (the ARTS program) and regulatory efforts to limit overprescribing by medical professionals.
High school students who were in attendance were invited to offer comments and all the students who spoke expressed appreciation for the information that had been shared. Many reported that their classmates are experimenting with prescription medication as a way to manage high levels of stress. Several students encouraged the addition of information on the dangers of opioids to school health curricula. The day concluded with a panel discussing issues surrounding recovery and a special training session on the use of naloxone.
Chair O’Bannon judged the event a success. “The people attending were obviously motivated to learn. Some told me they came because they worried a loved one might be misusing opioids,” she said. “They wanted to learn more, so they could address the problem. After the conference, several of the attendees told me they were glad they heard the experts and had the opportunity to ask questions of professionals.”
Chair Jaeckle noted the need for continued engagement on the issue, noting, “I think the most important thing to stay focused on with this opioid epidemic is that it is a multi-faceted problem with multiple solutions. It is much more than a funding issue.”
VACo Contact: Katie Boyle
PHOTO BY HENRICO COUNTY