They walk into the large auditorium from every walk of life. The seats are filled with parents who have lost children due to opioid abuse; parents, grandparents and concerned community members seeking information on the links between prescribed opioids and heroin abuse to help protect their children; widows and widowers who have lost husbands and wives to addiction; members of the medical community seeking to share information with families on alternatives to prescribed opioids in addressing sports injuries and other acute pain; community professionals and volunteers who try to connect the addicted to treatment services; county prosecutors and local law enforcement officers working to take illegal and prescription opioids off the streets; lawmakers whose lives have been touched by addiction and who are seeking answers and solutions.
This is a small cross section of individuals who have joined a unique and moving conversation about New Jersey’s opioid abuse epidemic through a series of town halls that are being held statewide over the next 17 months. The Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall series is being coordinated by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey and supported by a grant from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, the philanthropic arm of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. And, the series is coming to a county near you.
The goals of the town hall meetings are to provide residents an opportunity to more fully understand the impact this national epidemic is having on their own communities; the local, county and state resources and initiatives available to them; as well as an opportunity to highlight exemplary local programs that can be replicated throughout the state.
These town halls are not a public service; they are a public health necessity. Every day, 44 people in the country die from a prescription painkiller overdose. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, since 1999, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled and opioid prescriptions have increased markedly, almost enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills.
In New Jersey, the CDC reports that 62 prescriptions for painkillers were written per 100 residents in 2014, which equates to 5.4 million prescriptions. Prescription pain medication can become a gateway to heroin use, with research showing that four out of five heroin users abused prescription pain relievers before turning to heroin. Over the last decade, heroin abuse among young adults, ages 18 to 25, has quadrupled. Addictive opioids, both legal and illegal, have never been more accessible to individuals, regardless of where they live and who they are, and heroin is now much cheaper than prescription opioids, causing heroin addiction to skyrocket.
“Stopping opioid abuse requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted effort to improve public awareness about the threat of addiction and to develop best practices for treatment and prevention,” said Robert A. Marino, Horizon BCBSNJ chairman and chief executive officer, and the Horizon Foundation board chairman. “Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey has been a leader in the fight against drug abuse, and Horizon is pleased to join them in getting everyone in the conversation on real solutions and pathways to help in the community. It’s critical to engage multiple stakeholders in the whole continuum of care, starting from awareness of opioids addiction, to prevention and treatment.”
The town halls — 17 in total — are being held in communities most impacted by the crisis throughout New Jersey’s 21 counties. So far, town halls have been held in Atlantic, Morris, Monmouth and Bergen counties, with others scheduled elsewhere.
The events are open to any members of the public interested in joining the conversation on opioid abuse. The growing list of scheduled town halls and registration information can be found by clicking here.
“All residents of New Jersey are encouraged to join the conversation and participate in their local Knock Out Opioid Abuse Town Hall to understand the disease of addiction, develop strategies to help protect their families and identify resources to address individuals who have become dependent on prescription drugs or are abusing heroin,” said Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey. “Horizon has taken a leadership role in not only making these forums possible, but helping us design them as laboratories for generating best practices to attack the problem and prevent opioid abuse.”
The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey will maintain a record of best practices, ideas and innovations that are revealed during each of the town hall meetings. The information collected from the 17 town hall meetings will become part of a strategy for reducing the stigma of addiction, strengthening the support system in New Jersey and ultimately reducing substance misuse.
The dangers of opioid abuse are real and the task of reversing intolerable trends of overdoses and ease of access is nothing short of intimidating. The problem is so complex and prevalent in all communities and households because addiction doesn’t discriminate. No matter age, race, gender, income status or upbringing, everyone is vulnerable to becoming an addiction statistic. For too many families, the fight is a private and heart-wrenching one, and they are overmatched when trying to do battle on their own. That’s why the Horizon Foundation has joined forces with the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey to find solutions.
As Helen Keller once said: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
About the writer: Jonathan R. Pearson is executive director of The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.