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New Jersey hospital emergency room becomes first in U.S. to end use of opioid painkillers

PATERSON, N.J. -- St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center announced it has become the first hospital in the country to implement a program that will manage patients' pain in the emergency room without the use of opioid painkillers.

Painkillers most frequently used in the emergency room in the past were oxycodone, vicodin and percocet, according to Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the Emergency Department chair.

“Our job here together is to look at the whole equation and understand how we can stop people from going from a prescription, to an addiction,” he said.

About a half-mile down the road from St. Joseph’s, recovering addicts are lining up for treatment at Eva’s Village.

Demetria Washington said she started on pills before moving on to heroin.

“Then I couldn’t get to it no more and a girlfriend of mine was like well you could just try heroin. And I tried it and I liked it.”

She used drugs for 18 years, before entering recovery. She’s been clean for 8 years and currently works as a recovery specialist at Eva's.

“A lot of people use prescription drugs and then they end up turning to heroin,” she added.

Washington’s co-worker told us that she warns her son about the dangers of abusing prescription painkillers everyday.

“That’s what I tell my son because he’s seen me at my lowest point,” said Geraldine Lowe.

Lowe is also a recovering addict and a recovery specialist at Eva’s Village.

"As a matter of fact, and I’m not ashamed to say it, he was born addicted to drugs,” she said, adding that her son is now using pills.

America’s pill problem hits close to home, even for the head of St. Joseph's Emergency Department. Dr. Rosenberg said his mother-in-law recently broke her wrist.

“She went to the local emergency department without telling me, and she got 5 percocet and told to see her family doctor. Family doctor gave her a prescription for 100. She’s 93 years old. 100 percocet. The point being is we, our culture is such that it’s really, really out of control,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than than in any year on record, beating out deaths caused by car crashes and guns. Heroin and painkiller abuse are driving this problem, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“In 2012, there were enough opioid prescriptions issued - nearly 260 million - to give every man, woman and child in the country their own bottle of pills,” said U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ).

Federal and local lawmakers, law enforcement and health officials met for several hours at St. Joseph’s today to discuss how to stem the tide of opioid addiction.

“Everybody is at this table that should be, except for a few other people. We need the pharmaceuticals here, because they're shoving drugs down our throats,” said U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ).

St. Joseph’s Emergency Department, one of the busiest in the nation, has already begun to treat over 250 patients with alternative medicine or treatments, who would have otherwise received opioids. While opioids will still be used by St. Joseph’s staff to treat chronic pain, they will no longer be the first line of treatment.

“We have to acknowledge the fact that opioids are an essential drug to managing people with severe pain, like cancer pain,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

Federal legislation known as the Comprehensive addiction and recovery act is currently pending that could provide federal grants to states and local governments to combat the national epidemic of heroin addiction and prescription painkiller abuse.

It passed the Senate this month, it has not been voted on in the house

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