In the Fall of 2015, Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan gave an audience to a group of eight women from Fairbanks who were in Washington DC during a national rally on addiction, and who had each suffered tremendously at the hands of heroin addiction. His response was to convene a summit last August in Palmer to address the opioid crisis, which was attended by more than 500 people, including the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the United States Surgeon General. After reading the story “Losing A Generation,” published early this year in the Anchorage Press, which made mention of that summit, Senator Sullivan reached out to the Press and offered to talk more about it, what he’s learned since that meeting in 2015 and what’s being done to combat the crisis in our state.
Senator Sullivan: [The meeting with those eight women from Fairbanks] was one of the most powerful meetings I’ve had as a senator. These were beautiful, strong, professional women who literally have gone through hell. They were very open with me and very explicit about their challenges and everything they had been through. I’m not a very emotional guy, but that really struck me. These were good people—good Alaskans—who were really asking for help and attention to the broader problem. So, I literally came out of that meeting, looked at my staff and said, “You guys, we gotta really dig into this.”
I put my team and myself into really trying to understand [the crisis] in a much deeper way. I had my own kind of conversion. I think you could safely say that Republicans have kind of had a lock-em-up-this-is-your-fault attitude in the past. I certainly don’t buy that. Addiction is a disease. It’s something that people need help with, not incarceration. The summit was not focused on law enforcement. Even though, if you looked at the audience, every major law enforcement official in the state of Alaska was pretty much there, including the FBI and DEA. Since that time, the FBI has brought up all their top officials to brief me on what they know about where the drugs are coming from, how they get into Alaska and Anchorage. Are [drugs] driving crime in places like Anchorage? And the answer is yes. So, there are things we didn’t necessarily cover in the summit that I’ve certainly continued to focus on.
The goal [of the summit] was to bring people hope, to show them they’re not alone, to erase the stigma of addiction, to educate people and to bring awareness to the community. There are communities in the lower 48 that have literally been wiped out by this epidemic. I mean wiped out. So, let’s not think that we somehow can’t be impacted like that. If you look at the communities that have been hit the hardest, it’s the ones that are suffering economically, so it’s a double whammy. And right now, unfortunately, Alaska is suffering economically.
Since the summit, I’ve co-sponsored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) and was involved with the 21st Century Cures Act, which provides a billion dollars of funding for this issue. I met with over 250 people throughout our state on healthcare over the holidays, and I was telling them, “hey, look at the 21st Century Cures Act, there’s a lot of money in there. We need to focus on that.” I’ve followed up with the secretary of [the Department of Health and Human Service’s] on some of the big issues that came out of the summit, including this bed limitation thing.
Senator Sullivan was referencing something called the Institutes for Mental Disease exclusion which disallows mental health or substance abuse residential treatment facilities from billing Medicaid for their services if they have more than sixteen beds. It was created so that federal funds wouldn’t be used in place of state resources, but that’s partly why we ended up in a situation in which Ernie Turner Center (now known as SCF Detox) the has Anchorage’s only 14 detox beds for people who don’t have the money and/or insurance coverage to get private help.
Senator Sullivan: Gloria O’Neill at Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Katherine Gottlieb at Southcentral Foundation got up [at the summit] and made the point that they’re looking to expand beds in terms of recovery options. And one of the things I was trying to do with the secretary of HHS was to try to figure out how to ... expand the ways facilities classify themselves so they can have more beds [that are reimbursable by Medicaid].
We’re not going to solve this overnight, but one of the things I took away from the summit, and in articles like yours, [“Losing A Generation,” published early this year in the Anchorage Press], is that there is a change in the mentality of how people view addiction, which is very positive. And in [the Republican] party in particular. There’s a recognition of the scope of the challenge, and there is a sense of trying to work together. To me, having a strong economy is one of the most important things we can do across the board because this epidemic seems to seep into communities where there are fading opportunities.
We’re trying to do all that we can here [in DC] and back home, but a lot of the good ideas we get come from Alaskans who are struggling or who are in recovery. They’ve got a lot of knowledge and a lot of courage. And I want to try to be their support.
The Alaska Department of Health and Human Services confirmed with the Press that they’ve applied for some of that billion dollar SAMHSA grant money. The states that receive funding through the program will be chosen by SAMHSA based on the need for opioid use treatment, the number of drug poisoning deaths and the amount of services that any given region or state already has available. Given the criteria, Alaska should be high on the list.
Senator Sullivan: Correct. Part of my goal for the summit was that when they saw the applications coming across their desk, they would have a better understanding of our needs and would select us. I literally said that looking at the Surgeon General and the Deputy Secretary of HHS. And we’ll start that education process again with the leadership of the Trump administration.
When I talk to people about this, what I frequently hear are things like, “well, big pharma gives lots of money to the government, so they’re not going to help us. Their interests aren’t in line with ours.” Although Senator Sullivan’s efforts in this direction are pretty obvious, I asked him if this was something that everyone in DC is starting to care about.
I think that Congress is starting to really care. There’s some leaders in this that have been real champions for this issue. The CARA bill passed overwhelmingly. It’s bipartisan because unfortunately it’s hitting so many parts of the country, so I think that should be a message. The 21st Century Cures bill has a billion dollars in funding over the next 2 years for opioid treatment and heroin addiction, and that is real money. That’s big money.
One of the things the Surgeon General spoke about was that we had this witches brew of different forces coming together in the 1990s that were, in retrospect, kind of horrible. Drug companies that were promoting new opioid medicines like OxyContin, and others, and somehow making the case that these were less addictive than previous opioids, even though heroin has been addicting people since 4,000 years ago in China. And it wasn’t just big pharma, it was the federal government coming out and approving this stuff. I mean, look at the Surgeon General’s background. He’s a Yale Medical School graduate and he was literally taught there that these new kind of opioids weren’t that addictive.
I don’t think big pharma set out to addict an entire nation, but with the medical schools, the federal government and the pharma industry all coming together with some conventional wisdom that these drugs weren’t that addictive … guess what, they were all wrong. They’ve always been addictive. Now you have people treated for toothaches, high school athletes with sports injuries, and they’re being prescribed opioids and getting addicted.
Then, finally, when we started recognizing that, “oh my goodness, we’re on a dangerous road here,” and the doctors were being more skeptical and less receptive to prescribing these drugs, you had this massive influx of mostly black tar heroin from a new source, which was Mexico. It’s just shocking how innovative the dealers and distributors became. It was almost like a pizza delivery service. I mean they were delivering directly to people’s homes. So, it was that entire confluence of events that caused the problem and now we’ve got to unwind it. I’m trying to talk to grade school and high school students to say, “look, you guys can’t mess with this stuff. You can get addicted literally in one try.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that SCF Detox (previously known as Ernie Turner Center) has 12 beds. It actually has 14 beds. Also, SCF Detox does not treat pregnant females with opioid addiction. Southcentral Foundation’s Dena A Coy Residential Treatment Program serves pregnant, parenting and non-parenting women who are experiencing problems related to alcohol and other drugs and experiencing emotional and psychological issues.