‘My son … is not expendable’: More must be done to end the overdose crisis

Shared from Asbury Park Press

By Eileen Palazza, Guest columnist

When I read a recently published article titled ‘NJ’s fatal drug overdoses stay flat as nation’s numbers soar’ by Ken Serrano, my heart sank and I felt angry. My son Ryan is one of thousands of people in NJ we have lost to a preventable overdose. Overdose deaths are entirely preventable.

Here’s the good news about the article – it highlights key shifts and changes – but we have to do more.

And, when I say we, I mean all of us who believe those struggling with substance use deserve dignity, respect, and access to treatment. I also mean our elected representatives in government.

It is time for New Jersey lawmakers to wake up and realize if we want to see an end to overdose deaths and restore dignity and security to people who struggle with addiction and their families, we must enact solutions that work. Many of those solutions are named in the article. In particular, that means increasing access to Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), considered the gold standard of treatment for opioid use disorder, to anyone with no strings attached. One way to do this is through creating a state mobile MAT program that travels to communities hardest hit by addiction and overdose and meets patients where they are at. It also means increasing the quality, access, affordability and accountability of rehab, detox, and sober living facilities. Only 18% of New Jerseyans who needed treatment like MAT in 2019 received it. And 40% of those who wanted to get treatment were unable to – some 37,676 people in 2019.

And last, it is getting Narcan in the hands of every person who needs it with cost and access no longer a barrier. Ken Serrano mentions that doses or administrations of Narcan given out by ‘law enforcement officers and medics have risen from
7;227 in 2015 to 14,437 in 2020, according to NJ CARES, although the latter figure does not accurately reflect the growth of its use.” And thank god – looking at those numbers all of us can imagine how much higher overdose rates would be without increased Narcan. And yet, a survey of 90 retail pharmacies in 10 NJ cities in 2017 showed that on average only 31% had availability. (Availability ranged from 15.38% to 66.67% depending on the city.) The more affluent the area, the greater the likelihood the pharmacy carried naloxone. The less affluent the neighborhood, the more likely it was a naloxone desert. And while that data is outdated, the most recent we have – telling us we have work to do to get Narcan in the hands of those who most need it.

We need more data and to better understand how we are failing so many of our loved ones who struggle with addiction or use drugs, and how we can stop preventable overdose deaths. The NJ state Assembly and Senate need to hold hearings on the overdose crisis and addiction to hear from families and individuals directly impacted. We need real action now.

Ryan’s struggle with addiction started when he came out of college and lasted until we lost him in November of 2018. Because he did not always live near us, and he always had his own place, he was very adept at hiding what he was going through and what it was doing to his life. He was prescribed opioids for a back injury that he had sustained in high school football that was exacerbated when he went to college, and the opioid use led to his addiction to heroin. Heroin laced with fentanyl killed my son. My husband and I – when we were made aware of Ryan’s addiction – tried to help him in any way that we could. He moved in with us and lived with us for 5 years. What we found was that there was a total lack of services available for someone to take advantage of, as well as a total lack of rehab spaces for someone who did not have insurance or the personal funds to pay. He was treated as if he were expendable. My son was not and is not expendable.

Eileen Palazza is a resident of Toms River.