When covering painkiller crisis, don’t blame the victims
The screen shows a woman kicking and screaming. She yells “Oh my god” over and over before crumpling to the ground.
The camera shifts to follow a body as it’s loaded into a coroner’s van. Though the woman is now off-screen, her piercing screams can still be heard.
Every day, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose.
A clip of actor Peter Sarsgaard’s upcoming documentary about addiction, part of an EPIX series called "America Divided," played during the Poytner Institute’s luncheon panel discussion on opioids Monday at the National Press Club.
The opioid crisis can appear in the newspaper as a crime story, as a health story or as a story about the economy, said Independence Blue Cross President and CEO Dan Hilferty.
Journalists should push to report on every facet of what has become an epidemic, Hilferty said at the start of the panel, which was sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
“The stories journalists tell will help generate passion for change nationally and, I believe, internationally,” he said. “You can make a huge impact on this crisis and play a very important role in helping us all recover.”
The luncheon panel was part of a one-day workshop that aimed to inspire journalists to “stay on the story and report it accurately and aggressively,” said Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at Poynter.
In addition to Sarsgaard, journalists heard from White House drug czar Michael Botticelli, along with other reporters and healthcare experts.
Botticelli discussed the Obama administrations’ efforts to combat the crisis by pushing for increased funding and prescription drug monitoring. He also asked journalists to use “non-stigmatizing language” that acknowledges a substance abuse disorder as a disease.
“When we refer to people as addicts and junkies, we are only further perpetuating the stigma of this disorder and saying, ‘You are not deserving of care,’” he said.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said that attitude shift is an integral part of tackling the issue. Nationwide, Wen said, only 11 percent of patients with an addiction get treatment.
“With what other disease would that be acceptable? What if only 11 percent of people with cancer could get chemotherapy?” Wen said. “You’d never say the best cure for diabetes is to go to jail.”
In Sarsgaard’s documentary, he visits women suffering from addiction in an Ohio jail. There were no treatment options there, he said.
“It was just a place to dry out,” said Sarsgaard, who has a close relative going through similar issues. “Jail has become the default detox center in that city.”
Associated Press reporter Matthew Perrone joined the panel to talk about a recent investigation he was part of that exposed drugmakers’ effort to sway federal policies on prescription opioids through lobbying.
The story found that pharma groups spent more than $880 million nationally on lobbying efforts and campaign contributions between 2006 and 2015 — more than eight times what the gun lobby paid.
Near the end of the discussion, L.A. Times reporter Harriet Ryan asked Botticelli if he thinks “the industry is held accountable by the government for the problems that we have?”
“I will say that the administration continues to take actions as they see appropriate,” Botticelli said. “We’ll continue to do everything we can to make sure we’re making headway.”
He said the administration is looking at how to do a better job of “educating physicians and prescribers on opioids, in a way that’s not driven by the pharmaceutical companies.”
He’s been promoting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for prescribing opioids, which were released this year.
“I don’t think that 15 years into this epidemic that it’s too much to ask for prescriber to take a limited amount of education to end an epidemic,” he said.
The CDC’s Debra Houry discussed the guidelines with reporters in an earlier session.
Robin Gelburd, president of FAIR Health, discussed the way opioid addiction will impact people who may feel they have yet to be touched.
FAIR Health released a study of 150 million insurance claims showing that medical services for people with an opioid dependence jumped more than 3,000 percent from 2007 to 2014.
“The healthcare industry is like an aspen forest. If you know anything about an aspen forest, you know that all the trees’ roots are connected under the ground,” she said. “The costs increasing with these individuals will be felt by all of us. …It’s an economic issue and it will become very personal to all of us.”
Panelists were asked what they hope to hear presidential candidates say in tonight’s debate about the opioid crisis.
Wen said she’s looking to hear concrete policies and a plan to tackle not just opioid addiction, but the mental health problems that often exists hand-in-hand.
“I want to see some understanding of the complexity of the issue,” she said. “It’s easy to put it is as, ‘Big pharma bad.’ I’m looking for them not to just demonize one group.”
Ryan said the workshop was valuable to reporters, especially who are new to cover the subject.
“It’s beneficial knowing that all areas of society, from government agencies to law enforcement to celebrities, care about this issue,” she said. “There are many sources of information journalists can turn to — they don’t have to learn about this subject all on their own.”