W

ASHINGTON — In its second hearing on the country’s raging drug crisis since President Trump directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the matter a public health emergency in October, the Senate health committee called a hearing with a single witness: a journalist.

Such hearings conventionally spotlight high-profile government officials and career advocates with deep expertise in a subject. Every hearing this committee and a similarly health-focused House panel held to specifically address the opioid epidemic since 2016 has featured at least four witnesses. A committee press staffer did not answer questions about why Sam Quinones was the only witness at this full committee hearing.

“It is unusual to have a single witness at our hearings,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee chairman, in his opening statement. “But this is an unusual topic.”

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Quinones is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and author of the acclaimed book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” which chronicles how addiction has devastated the country. He told STAT in advance of the hearing that he was honored to be invited, and also surprised to be the only person testifying. He didn’t know the reason that he was the sole witness.

“I’m a little stunned, honestly, that that’s the case,” Quinones said Monday. “I’m just a reporter like you, man. A week ago, 10 days ago, I was on a hill in a shantytown in Tijuana, you know?”

Quinones’s main message for senators was that money and policy are important, but solutions will come not from short-term billion-dollar spending packages. Instead he advocated for more holistic approaches.

“The antidote to heroin is not naloxone, it is community,” Quinones said.

He spoke in broad strokes, invoking the way that America came together to send human beings into space and to rebuild Europe after World War II, encouraging the senators to speak directly with local leaders as well as individuals in recovery from opioid addiction to learn how to help them. He also had a few specific policy messages: We should improve rehabilitation services in local jails, reduce the unnecessarily high opioid prescriptions given after surgery, and build a collaborative relationship with Mexico to stop the transnational flow of drugs.

Many senators directly referenced his book or brought copies of it. “The book was great,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had the book beside her during the hearing. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked Quinones to sign a copy after the hearing concluded.

Quinones urged the politicians to pursue solutions that would not only help individuals suffering from opioid addiction, but that would also lead to a stronger society able to prevent other drugs from wreaking havoc in America.

On the details of how to fix the situation, he said, “I don’t have a clue. I’m just a guy, a reporter out there trying to understand this enormous country we have, and sometimes it’s hard.”

“That’s a pretty good description of the way we feel,” Alexander responded, chuckling.

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While Quinones is an accomplished journalist, his knowledge of the situation is secondhand, a congressional historian pointed out.

“I’d want to know why a reporter, with at best secondhand knowledge, would be preferred over medical pros on the front line of the crisis,” said Lewis Gould, an emeritus professor of history at University of Texas at Austin who wrote a book about the Senate in 2006.

Quinones acknowledged that he wasn’t the expert. When Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked Quinones about potential policy solutions, the journalist urged the senator to talk to other people.

“[The] best idea that I can come up with is to consult those people who are already working on that,” Quinones said.

Erin Mershon contributed reporting.

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  • One witness sounds like normal! You do not what to know how under-treatment of Chronic Intractable Pain Syndrome (CIPS) has forced thousands into self medicating, overdose and death (intentional or not). I know the real world in side and out. The toxic medical environment on the east coast, forced drug abuse, treatment augmentation, and intentional death (not excluded from the CDC lists). This has been more affective than the “T-4 Program”, and this used to be a free society. You should examine me before condemning me. I drive 1,417 miles one-way monthly for treatment. The Hospital Clinic issued closure notice when the April 2, 2018 90 MME came out. I cannot convenes another doctor I am legitimate, it takes a year now. Since you have sentenced me to death in 2019, I have a college educated real world story to be scrutinized if Congress wants. I do not think any cares that every spike in the death rate can be traced to the closure of Pain Clinics, the specialists for the treatment of CIPS. I have never testified, but will, since it is the end for me anyway! You have no idea what has already gone on, much less the result of your treating me and people like me (veterans, auto accident, elderly, industrial and other CIPS victims of your careless medical treatment sanctioned by academics that read something and think they know what is going on out here! You deserve the spike in death rates that will be the result of your uninformed and careless medical policy.

  • The millions of people who are NOT addicted as many would have you believe, but suffer multiple endless days of pain due to many different diagnoses, including the millions suffering daily pain from autoimmune, as well as millions of non-autoimmune problems such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and a hundred other diagnoses have been denied any significant pain relief, mainly due to doctor abandonment. To have agencies of the federal or state governments dictate the immediate ceasing of using the most effective pain management for decades over the past 2 years will cause many in pain to indeed commit suicide. It works both ways people. There have been millions deeply hurt by this directive, and nobody, not even this journalist as the only one testifying to Congress, has any authority, no expertise to dictate what should be done about this huge mistake. All over this country, people are suffering pain and their health being damaged by this insane withdrawal of former Class III controlled substances, regardless of their adherence to direct following of the directions by their doctors. Not ALL the many who benefit most from hydrocodone or related opioid therapies as directed are “addicts” as some doctors and others would accuse. Pain management clinics are a joke, and again have the attitude that all patients on opioids become “addicts” and get treated as such. It is malpractice due to ignorance by too many physicians, and now an attorney general not well versed not qualified to issue edicts that cause great harm to millions, plus anybody else who thinks they can play God with doing such harmful regulatory changes should be investigated with vigor and this false claim that opioids used successfully for years should be stopped immediately is causing great harm that will continue to result in deaths, not by suicides due to addiction but by the harmful malice shown by our leaders and some naive professionals who have no business interfering with this most valuable life-saving effects when used as directed. But this gross indictment of all who use and need the effective opioids for years are not automatic candidates for suicide as implicated by wrongful thinking by amateurs in high places. It is high time to quit blaming the opioids used successfully in many patients without this wrenching denial immediately be reversed and the patients who suffer the most of all, from cancers, to autoimmune diseases, non-autoimmune diseases, and trauma cases be able to regain some quality of llife before these people in high places are guilty of murder.

    • I am constantly hearing about pain pills being reasonable for the OD’s and addiction. What percentage is due to illegal drugs vs. prescribed drugs?

      My money says the over the hill politicians that are behind the effort to cut off the legal supply to suffering patients will have no problem getting theirs.

    • HALLELUJAH!! I was beginning to think I knew only 2 people yelling about that same issue, R. I’ve been saying this for years, and so has my doctor, who is the guy in charge of everyone in his section at a rather large medical group!!!

  • Republicans are more comfortable in blaming general cultural and historic “loss of community” rather than specific policies (FDA and DEA letting wholesalers and manufacturers off the hook) and corporate greed (Purdue Pharma and others); aggressive marketing to prescribers; flooding the country with excess numbers of pills. See any number of articles on this such as: https://www.thedailybeast.com/new-plan-to-fight-the-opioid-epidemic-sue-the-hell-out-of-big-pharma-like-big-tobacco .

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