Summit gathers forces to fight addiction in Alaska

I had an extremely moving meeting in Washington, D.C., last fall with a group of Alaska women. They were in the capital to attend the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally, where thousands from across the country were raising awareness in the fight against addiction.

Each of the women at the meeting had their own powerful story of facing addiction. They were incredibly courageous. That was the most poignant and powerful meeting I've had as a U.S. senator. It opened up my eyes to the problem of addiction and what this scourge was doing to Alaskans all across the state and Americans all across the country.

As the conversation drew to a close, there was not a dry eye in the room and I knew action needed to be taken to help my fellow Alaskans back home who are struggling with this epidemic.  In D.C., Congress recently passed, and the president signed into law, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which I co-sponsored at the urging of the women I met with. It will provide much-needed resources to communities to fight the epidemic. It's a good step, but much more needs to be done on the local, state and federal levels.

I will convene a Wellness Summit to be held Aug. 4 at Mat-Su College in Palmer. The summit is dedicated to conquering the opioid and heroin epidemic. Consider these troubling statistics:

• Since 2010, the number of heroin-associated overdose deaths increased more than ten-fold in 2015.

• Deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs and heroin continue to be the leading cause of unintentional death for Americans, surpassing car accidents and gun violence.

• In 2012, Alaska's prescription opioid pain reliever overdose death rate was more than double the national average.


• Between 2009–2013, heroin-related admissions to publicly funded substance use treatment centers nearly doubled.

[Struggling in battle with heroin, Mat-Su opens new treatment centers]

Remember the faces behind these numbers include our sons and daughters, our parents, our community leaders, our neighbors and our friends.

Federal officials from several agencies will attend to hear what unique obstacles Alaskans face when in recovery, as well as witness the indomitable spirit of Alaskans who have overcome those obstacles.

Whether you are a caretaker, a medical professional, a family member, someone who is struggling from addiction, or friend who has experience with addiction, a young person resisting the pressure to experiment, or a citizen looking for more information, I would be honored for you to attend and enlist your help.

At the summit, the U.S. Surgeon General will join Alaska's chief medical officer for an in-depth discussion on this topic. Dr. Vivek Murthy has been touring the country with his "Turn the Tide Rx" campaign, meeting with doctors and relaying the message that doctors can stop prescription opioid abuse. When I met with Murthy earlier this year, he spoke with great knowledge and compassion on the issue and is determined to change the status quo. I am excited for him to join us and connect with Alaskans.

The second in charge at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield, will be the keynote speaker. Among other things, HHS oversees grants for community health centers, guidance for opioid prescription practices, and regulations on treatment centers.

HHS has a budget of $1.1 trillion and almost 80,000 employees, many of whom work in Alaska. Dr. Wakefield and HHS need to understand Alaskans are dedicated to eradicating this epidemic, and HHS expertise and resources can play a major role in that effort.

Dr. Jennifer Lee, deputy undersecretary for health policy and services for the Veteran Health Administration, and Dr. Karen Drexler, VHA acting national mental health program director for addictive disorders, will both attend to make sure the state with the most veterans per capita is not forgotten in their efforts to provide the best care for U.S. veterans.

I am committed to focusing our time together at the summit to produce tangible solutions attending federal officials and I can take back to Washington.

Many of the women I met last fall will be there, along with prominent Alaska officials, experts and community leaders to ensure our story of dealing with this crisis is told. Please join us at the summit to represent Alaska's dedication to conquering the opioid and heroin epidemic and producing solutions to direct our federal guests.

For the full agenda, as well as how to live stream the summit, please visit my website at sullivan.senate. gov/wellness-summit.

There is hope for our future. I need your help to empower those in need, their loved ones, and all Alaskans on this journey of recovery. All of us have a role in helping stem this crisis, and all are needed to ensure we don't lose another person to addiction.

Dan Sullivan was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alaska in 2014.

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