Gottheimer Announces Student Athlete-Stop Addiction Strategy

Apr 06, 2018

Pushes Health and Human Services Secretary Azar to Fight Opioid Addiction In College Athletics

Today, Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) announced his Student Athlete-Stop Addiction Strategy to help protect student athletes from the opioid crisis. Gottheimer was joined by Bergen County Sheriff Saudino, FDU’s Dean of the School of Pharmacy and Life Sciences Dr. Michael Avaltroni, Hackensack UMC’s Dr. Michael Kelly, and Gail Cole, the founder of Hope and Healing After an Addiction Death and mother of student athlete Brendan Cole, who was lost to opioid addiction in 2014.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that opioids are the single leading cause of drug-related deaths. That problem is compounded among student athletes, who run the risk of injury every time they step on the field or court. Of the more than 460,000 student athletes competing at U.S. colleges and universities, many are being prescribed opioids after injuries.

Six bipartisan colleagues joined Gottheimer’s efforts calling for Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to focus on the growing college athletes opioid crisis and take steps to address the issue. Gottheimer’s Student Athlete-Stop Addition Strategy requests HHS to aggregate up-to-date data and information; conduct a comprehensive inter-agency assessment of current actions being taken to help student athletes; and for the agency to recommend options for new and improved coordination between the federal government, colleges, students and other stakeholders. It is critical that we have up-to-date information so we can identify the scope and magnitude of this emergency.

“When it comes to the opioid crisis ravaging America’s communities, I fight for families like the Coles, who lost their son Brendan, a former college athlete, four years ago to heroin. As we all celebrated the remarkable student athletes from Villanova achieving the pinnacle of their collegiate careers on the court, we need to demand that America take better care of our student athletes when they are off the court. That’s why I am leading a bipartisan call for the Department of Health and Human Services to step up for college athletes, who are on the front lines of the opioid crisis,” said Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5).

“This epidemic is extremely personal. He had been prescribed opiates for two surgeries and it led down this path from taking them to experimenting. I was just a regular mom, but have become very outspoken. I don’t want his death to be in vain,” said Gail Cole, founder of Hope and Healing After an Addiction Death and mother of student athlete Brendan Cole, who was lost to opioid addiction in 2014.

“All too often the problem starts on athletic fields and in gymnasiums. It’s going to take an effort from so many different entities to have a positive impact on this situation. I commend the Congressman for his efforts in this situation,” said Bergen County Sheriff Saudino.

Below: Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) outlines his Student Athlete-Stop Addiction Strategy in FDU’s Rothman Center alongside Gail Cole (left), Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino (center-right), and FDU’s Dean of the School of Pharmacy and Life Sciences Dr. Michael Avaltroni (right)

Video of the event can be found HERE.

Congressman Gottheimer’s letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar can be found HERE.

Congressman Gottheimer’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

When it comes to the opioid crisis ravaging America’s communities, I fight for families like the Coles, who lost their son Brendan four years ago to heroin and like the Franzese’s, who lost their son TJ last April.

Brendan Cole was a talented and smart young man who graduated from the University of Richmond, having played goalie on the college lacrosse team.

When Brendan lost his battle against opioid addiction in 2014, at the all-too-young age of 22, his mother Gail honored his legacy by forming a bereavement group with Lani Bonifacic for families whose loved ones died of an addiction. The group “Hope and Healing After an Addiction Death” meets twice a month in Allendale, where sadly its numbers have only grown. Gail shared a few recent, heartbreaking stories with me earlier week, and, as a parent of young children, I just can’t imagine what it’s like for these parents to wake up and muster the strength every day.

TJ Franzese also came from Allendale, where he was a son of New Jersey through and through. TJ played for Don Bosco’s National Championship Football Team in 2009, where he starred at running back and went on to play to Union College in New York.

Tragically, TJ’s blessing was a curse that too many college athletes face today. After a football injury, TJ was prescribed opioid painkillers and developed an addiction to the substance that killed him, last year, at the young age of 24.

When I attended the Thomas Joseph Franzese Jr. Scholarship Fund charity event in TJ’s honor, there was not a dry eye and not a person who didn’t wonder how this could have been avoided. Because if TJ, the pride of Allendale, could fall victim to the opioid crisis, then whose child is safe?

I remember how TJ’s dad, only weeks after his death, described to me what happened with his son. He had a bad injury, there was an important game, and he told his dad that he wasn’t going to play. And the team doc gave him a few pills, so he could suit up. He did, kept taking the pills, week after week, and was never the same.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), opioids are the single leading cause of drug-related deaths, causing 42,249 fatalities in 2016 alone. Of those, 5,376 victims were between the ages of 15 and 24. These troubling results are due in part to the increasing use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid almost 50 times stronger than heroin.

Between 2004 and 2015, New Jersey experienced a 214 percent spike in heroin-related deaths. But, in Sussex County alone, between 2013 and 2016, overdose deaths increased from 13 to 36, a nearly 200% increase.

In one week last year, because of a deadly batch of heroin circulating in the area, Sussex County experienced a twelve-fold increase in opioid overdoses that led to three deaths and forced first responders to administer Narcan a dozen times.

In Sussex County in 2015, Narcan was deployed 47 times. The next year, 62 times. And, in 2017, Sussex County reached that number of Narcan saves by September. Sussex County was the first in the state to have all its police departments equipped with Narcan. Sussex law enforcement is saving lives.

Bergen County, too, has made significant strides in fighting this epidemic.

In 2016, Bergen didn’t go a day without a heroin arrest, an overdose or an addict revived with Narcan.

Led by now-State Attorney General then-Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal and County Executive Jim Tedesco, Bergen dramatically cut down opioid-related deaths by treating addiction as a disease and not exclusively as a law enforcement problem. They allow addicts to come to police departments for help. Then they paired drug counselors with police departments to care for individuals with addiction. Without fear of prison, addicts who know that they need treatment can walk into a police station, surrender drug paraphernalia, consult with on-site clinicians and enter detox without being charged.

Meanwhile, even with these steps, the drugs keep pouring in through the heroin highway – from Paterson right up into Franklin Lakes right up into Franklin Borough. And so many addicts who want help often can’t get it, given the shortage of long-term inpatient substance abuse treatment beds. In a 2013 report, SAMHSA estimated that out of 179,000 people in New Jersey who abused or were dependent on illicit drugs, only a quarter received treatment. Instead, after getting saved with Narcan, they end up right back on the streets or back in their parents home where they OD again.

I want to recognize the Governor’s actions this week to help the crisis here in New Jersey and free up more beds.

Yet, the situation has gotten so bad, today, that United States Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome M. Adams, issued a national advisory Thursday urging more Americans to keep on hand and learn how to use opioid overdose revival drugs.

We know that there are many factors contributing to this opioid epidemic, especially with young people – situations where friends share pills with other friends at “Pill parties,” where individuals, with addictions to other drugs like cocaine, fake pain to acquire opioids, or where someone just finds leftover pills in a loved one’s medicine cabinet. But perhaps the most underreported and overly problematic and pernicious routes into drug addiction is through a sports injury.

Athletes are often prescribed opioids for injuries when non-narcotic medications would be sufficient.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 12% of male athletes and 8% of female athletes had used prescription opioids in a 12-month period.

The issue does not end once a student athlete finishes their prescriptions. A University of Michigan study even found that student athletes had a higher risk of using opioids for non-medical reasons. The NCAA subsequently reported that in 2015, 23 percent of college athletes received prescriptions for pain medication, with 6 percent of athletes using opioids without a prescription. We need university officials to work in collaboration with the NCAA and HHS to follow up with, and help athletes, to make sure that unfinished prescriptions are not contributing to abuse.

Hard-working students on and off the field should not have to risk their lives to play sports they enjoy and excel in.

As we all celebrated the remarkable student athletes from Villanova achieving the pinnacle of their collegiate careers on the court, we need to demand that America take better care of our student athletes when they are off the court.

That’s why, today, I am calling on the Department of Health and Human Services to step up for college athletes, who are on the front lines of the opioid crisis.

I am leading Republican and Democratic colleagues across the country in asking the HHS Secretary to provide the following three items, as part of my Student Athlete-Stop Addiction Strategy, to help protect student athletes. We can’t just sit idly by. We need to take on this fight. And we need a real plan. I just don’t feel like we are doing enough, fast enough.

The three pillars to my Student Athlete-Stop Addiction Strategy are as follows:

First, HHS must provide up-to-date data and information on actions taken to help student athletes who are prescribed opioids. It is critical that we have up-to-date information so we can identify the scope and magnitude of this emergency. Tragically, that information currently is not publicly available. How can you solve a problem if you don’t have all the facts?

Second, HHS should report on current pilot programs available for student health providers, athletic directors, and athletes. We need a comprehensive look at what is available to universities and coaches, what resources they take advantage of, and what is working. We need to make sure that New Jersey and New York universities and their teams are utilizing the best practices and engaging with available resources.

This all starts on the ground level with coaches, athletic directors, and team doctors. We need to work together on all fronts to know the early warning signs to help intervene when a student is encountering a problem. If a coach or teammate notices that a student athlete is lagging in the classroom and on the field, or showing an unusual lack of interest in his or her sport, it may be an early warning indication of addiction.

Team doctors and coaches must make athletes aware of the danger of opioids before issuing prescriptions, especially if a non-narcotic medication is sufficient for treatment, and to track them if they are using a narcotic. They have a real responsibility to watch out for their players – not just to medicate them to get them back on the field for the next game.

And, third, HHS must share information on what more can be done to help students on college campuses fight this epidemic. We need an informed plan of attack that leverages the resources of the federal government, be it research and data at HHS and CDC, existing grant programs, or new mandates.

When a child’s brain is still developing, we need to take everything into account before they receive a prescription. Addictive substances have extreme consequences on young brains, and we must educate our children, coaches, and parents early on the disastrous effects of these harmful drugs.

We know that our children’s brains are still developing at 21. If a student gets exposed to opioids, their brain gets rewired and it could take a year to fix the damage. It’s even worse if the student is predisposed to addiction.

Doctors have the responsibility to accurately inform parents on what they will be prescribing their children, the potential disastrous outcomes, and the alternatives.

This will take a team effort at every level to win this battle. We know how powerful these drugs are, and they will take a real fight. The key is to avoid addiction in the first place. If we can successfully avoid addiction without prescribing opioids when non-narcotic medications are enough, we can take an essential step to winning this battle.

Families like the Coles and the Franzeses deserve these answers on the steps that we have taken and can continue to help beat the opioid epidemic.

I’m proud to say that as a nation, albeit not fast enough, we have been making progress.

Last year, I was proud to announce that the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) invested $13 million dollars to improve New Jersey’s response to the state’s opioid epidemic, as allocated by the 21st Century Cures Act.

SAMHSA dollars help fund programs like the state’s Outreach and Community Education Regarding the Use of Opioid Pain Relievers for Sports-Related Injuries in Young Athletes Program, which raises awareness of these risks of opioid prescriptions among young athletic communities.

SAMHSA dollars also bolster some of the great work done by prevention coalitions like Sussex County’s CLEAR.

And, in the recently passed funding bill, we made sure to allocate $3.3 billion in new investment for SAMHSA, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institute of Health to fight opioids.

These resources are an excellent win against addiction. That said, it’s imperative we get these resources dispersed quickly and effectively to the right people, including the smart targeting of our resources.

If we know a certain population is more exposed to opioids, let’s take a look and take decisive action.

Young lives like Brendan and TJ’s count on it.

Ultimately, I know that with persistence, America can beat the opioid crisis.

We live in the greatest nation in the world and we don’t quit. We come together as a community, we work together, and we fight back. This is a fight we can win. And in Congress, I will never quit fighting for the victims of the opioid crisis and fighting for families like the Coles here in New Jersey and across our country.

Thank you and may God Bless our children, and may God continue to bless these United States of America.

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