REMARKS AS PREPARED
Governor Kate Brown
U.S. Senate HELP Committee Testimony
March 8, 2018
Thank you to Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, and the committee members for having me here today. I am also grateful to Governor Hogan for joining me. By providing our states’ perspectives, I hope we can underscore the urgency of tackling the opioid crisis that has touched every corner of every state in our nation.
Part of what makes opioids so dangerous is the fact there is so much of it. And it isn’t hard to get. Abuse can begin as easily as reaching into the average family medicine cabinet.
That’s what happened to Max Pinsky of Southern Oregon. He was a poet and a chef. When he was 17 years old he got into a car accident and was prescribed opioid painkillers. What started as therapy became self-medication, and spiraled into abuse. From prescription pills, he moved onto heroin. His mother Julia was devastated as she watched the grip of opioids consume his life. He died of an overdose at the age of 25.
It’s so hard to look back on Max’s story and wonder what could have been. What if we lived in a society where he wasn’t shamed for having a problem or for reaching out for help? What if he’d had access to better treatment? What if the first responders had had lifesaving overdose drugs?
Addiction is blind to circumstance, but high costs of addiction are borne by our children, whose parents are unable to care for them while struggling with substance abuse.
Right now, the federal government recognizes the problem, but is focused on punishment. That leaves us, the states, to right the wrongs of a war on drugs that has done nothing to address the issues that drive this public health crisis, while our prisons and our foster care systems are filled to capacity with its victims.
I’ve seen it firsthand. Prior to becoming Governor, I worked as a lawyer representing parents and children in the foster care system. I watched children come in and out of foster care as their parents struggled with substance use disorders, achieve recovery, and then relapse due to lack of support systems. As children struggled with a foster family they barely knew, their parents struggled with addictions that overwhelmed the treatment system.
In Oregon, sixty percent of foster children have at least one parent with substance abuse issues, including opioids.
If we can make meaningful change in prevention, treatment and recovery from substance abuse, we can create better lives for our families. We can see more success for students in our schools. We would lift a burden off our hospitals. And our law enforcement. And our prisons.
In my own family, access to comprehensive behavioral health treatments changed the trajectory of addiction.
My stepchild started abusing drugs in high school. My husband Dan and I watched him change, and felt powerless to do anything about it. Eventually, a teacher caught him using at school, and instead of kicking him out, she called us. We knew that just trying to stop using wouldn’t work. His daily routine had become centered around getting high. He needed an immersive treatment program, but our insurance policy stood in the way. He had to go through two separate outpatient and in-patient treatments—and relapses—before our insurance would cover the residential program he needed.
Fortunately for us, our family’s story turned out very differently than the Pinskys. But it taught me how different recovery can look for every individual. We need to think about it as a process that needs to be tailored to a person’s unique circumstances and environment, turning away from a “fail first” model.
That is something we’re working on in Oregon. We’re also getting more life-saving overdose drugs into the hands of first responders, and implementing creative programs to provide a warm hand off from emergency room to treatment and recovery.
In Oregon, in addition to increasing treatment resources, we need to make sure that we’re focusing on decreasing stigma as well. We must break through the barriers of shame to provide the best treatments possible first and the most effective assistance now.
We need to let people know that it is okay to come out of the shadows, that it is okay to ask for help, and that there is help that’s right for them.
At a federal level, there is so much that can and must be done. Improving data sharing from the federal to the state level. Making affordable generic overdose drugs more available. Rejecting a punitive approach to addiction.
Who knows? Maybe this could have saved Max Pinsky’s life.
We know it can save millions of others.