No end in sight for opioid epidemic

As lawyers exchange mountains of paper and dicker over the details of a settlement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Americans are dying from opioids by the tens of thousands in an epidemic that grinds on in state after state, community after community, with no end in sight.

In July, the coroner serving the Columbus area reported nine overdose deaths in just 48 hours. Police in Norwalk, Conn., responded to eight overdoses — five fatal — over a six-day period in August and September. In Pennsylvania’s hard-hit York County, the coroner investigated eight suspected overdose deaths in a single week of August, and four in 24 hours.

“This is a battle that’s not going to end easily, and it will be something we are fighting for a while,” York Coroner Pam Gay said. “It’s going to take awhile to see a significant decline.”

York resident Ed Bojarsky got an oxycodone prescription to manage pain from his kidney disease and became addicted, taking “an ungodly amount” of the powerful drug as his illness progressed, his stepmother said.

“You don’t need all that medication,” Tina Bojarski would tell him. But he “didn’t want to hear it,” she said.

“Because once you have it, you need it.”

And when he couldn’t get it, Tina Bojarski said, he turned to the streets. Last month, the 36-year-old died of a suspected overdose.

“These doctors do this to people. This medication does this to people. And then what are they supposed to do?” his stepmother said.

Purdue has entered into a proposed settlement with about half the states and at least 1,000 local governments, but attorneys general in Pennsylvania and other states have come out against the deal, calling it insufficient. They vowed to continue litigation against the company and the family that owns it.

Days after reaching the tentative agreement that could be worth up to $12 billion, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in White Plains, N.Y., late Sunday — the first step toward putting the settlement into effect. But several states plan to object to the settlement in bankruptcy court.

In the meantime, communities are struggling with the toll wrought by the crisis as well as a ballooning tab for drug treatment, social services and law enforcement. Since 1999, opioids have killed about 400,000 Americans. U.S. drug overdose deaths climbed year after year for decades, topping 70,000 in 2017 before falling slightly last year.

In Wilson, N.C., where Purdue has a manufacturing plant, Jonathan Cannon took opioids before moving on to heroin. He died of an overdose at 26.

At Cannon’s 2015 funeral, his father, Mike Cannon, warned Jonathan’s friends — who were also using — to go to rehab or risk meeting the same fate.

One of them did wind up in rehab, and she continues battling addiction, said her mother, Elizabeth Fenner.

Fenner said her 31-year-old daughter, Ashley, became addicted to Percocet so quickly after taking it at a party that she began shooting up heroin within a month. Ashley has been in recovery for three years, but Fenner remains wary, describing her daughter as a “manipulator” who once stole her valuables to support her habit.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)