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Credit: Cindy Chen

Pennsylvania declared the opioid epidemic a statewide national disaster less than a month ago, and on Monday, Penn students gathered to find out why.

The event, titled “The Opioid Epidemic: Where We Are and How We Got Here," was sponsored by the 2018 Public Policy Case Competition, which is challenging participants to design a government policy or program to prevent opioid use disorder. The winning team will earn $5,000 while two honorable-mention teams will earn $2,000.  

The presentation itself covered a broad spectrum of data about the opioid crisis, ranging from mortality statistics to current prevention and treatment methods. While the event was open to all members of the Penn community, the event catered to people interested in participating in the public policy competition, and they were the majority of the attendees.  

Second-year Penn graduate student, Matt Miclette, led the event. As a Policy Associate at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, he devotes a major portion of his career to addressing the opioid crisis. 

Miclette noted two major causes of the current crisis. First, the release of OxyContin as a long-acting pain reliever was extremely popular in the late nineties, leading to doctor’s consistently prescribing it. Second, there was a major culture shift to treat pain as an illness itself rather than something to live with. This is reflected by the Joint Commission’s 2001 decision to include pain as another vital sign, he said.

Nursing and Wharton senior Haley Morin is planning on entering the competition. She said her clinical experience from the School of Nursing led her to consider this opportunity. 

“As a Nursing student, I did a rotation on a dual-diagnosis [psychiatric] unit so I saw a lot of people that had opioid use disorder and seeing that firsthand is kind of a different, eye-opening experience," she said. "I thought this would be a great opportunity to apply what I’ve learned while being able to think more creatively than I would in a classroom.

Also in attendance was Nursing sophomore Caroline Bourneuf, who said she plans on combating the opioid epidemic later in her career. 

“I’m interested in becoming a rehab nurse. I really like the [psychiatric] aspect of nursing and so I feel like having to help someone through [addiction] would be very rewarding," she said.

Philadelphia has been particularly affected by the opioid crisis. There were 70 opioid-caused deaths in 30 days from mid-November to mid-December, as reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer

Miclette provided insight into Penn’s efforts to address the issue locally. 

“We’ve had a bunch of Penn faculty and myself and some other Penn-affiliated people who are on the mayor’s task force. We work hand-in-hand with the city itself,” he said. 

The LDI promotes research through its own task force that can contribute to decisions of the mayor's task force. This united effort has led to the city proposing the establishment of safe-injection sites, where addicts can receive clean needles and treatment. 

These policy changes arrive amid a statewide disaster emergency that allows officials to pursue policy changes that may have been delayed in the past. During this 90-day state of emergency, Philadelphia filed a lawsuit against certain pharmaceutical companies that prescribe opioids. 

Joni Siff Schwager, a Staunton Farm Foundation philanthropist, advocates for this decision. Her foundation donates grants to non-profit organizations that address both mental health and addiction. “I think that it is a bold and important and necessary move that the city took,” Schwager said.