Restaurateur Tony Luke Jr. has one lasting memory of his son and namesake, who died of a heroin overdose in March 2017.

"It was 1:30 a.m., and he was standing on a corner smoking a cigarette," Luke said. "There was no hope in his eyes. None."

Luke said he turned to God and prayed for help because he no longer knew what to do. What was worse than the drug that consumed Tony III was the hopelessness he saw, Luke said.

"Addiction is far deeper than just getting high," he said.

Luke was one of the featured panelists at the Inquirer's second annual Opioid Forum, held Thursday at Sky Philadelphia. The sold-out event, sponsored by Independence Blue Cross and Crozer-Keystone Health System, included frank discussions on what can be done to address the burgeoning crisis.

More than 1,200 people died in 2017 in Philadelphia from drug overdoses, up from 900 the year before, said Thomas Farley, city health commissioner. He called it the worst health crisis in a century, comparing it to the peak of the AIDS epidemic, which saw 935 deaths.

While the Kensington neighborhood has become the center of the opioid crisis, other pockets of the city have been affected, including South Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, and the Far Northeast. About three-quarters of fatal overdoses occur in the home, Farley said.

Part of dealing with the crisis is recognizing how it affects the neighboring community, Farley said.

On May 30, the city will clear out two of the homeless encampments on Lehigh Avenue in Kensington that have sprung up as a result of the opioid crisis. Residents of the encampments were given 30 days' notice. Many already have left, and some have been eased into treatment, Farley said.

"We are optimistic about the direction it is going in," he said.

Inquirer Reporter Aubrey Whelan, left, talks with Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, right, at the Opioid Forum, Thursday, May 17, 2018.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer.
Inquirer Reporter Aubrey Whelan, left, talks with Thomas Farley, MD, MPH, right, at the Opioid Forum, Thursday, May 17, 2018.

During a panel discussion moderated by Charlotte Sutton, the Inquirer's health editor, presenters covered issues most critical to overcoming the opioid crisis.

In addition to Luke, the panelists were Jose Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point; Kevin Caputo, vice president of behavioral health at Crozer-Keystone Health System; Devin A. Reaves, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition; and Richard Snyder, chief medical officer at Independence Blue Cross.

"This is going to take teamwork to fix this," Snyder said.

He said the crisis was not just an insurance problem or a medical problem; "it is a social problem."

Some of the solutions to the opioid crisis that the group discussed included:

  • Limiting prescriptions for opioids.
  • More education on early prevention for employers, parents, etc.
  • Pass statewide legislation for needle-exchange programs.
  • Court systems should encourage treatment, and not punishment, for addiction-related crimes.
  • Break down insurance barriers for patients seeking treatment and expand coverage to include drugs like methadone.
  • Create more shelters for people in addiction that do not come with restrictions, such as being in recovery.
  • Establish comprehensive treatment plans that include 24-hour access for care, and more robust inpatient and outpatient programs.

Safe injection sites also were a hot topic. In January, city officials announced they would establish, but not run, a medically supervised site. The idea was met with criticism from some neighborhoods and law enforcement.

Benitez said that there are more than 100 safe injection sites around the world.

"They have been in existence for at least 20 years with zero overdose deaths," he said. "While we're talking, people are dying on the streets."

Mayor Kenney said the city was focused on holding accountable those who contributed to the opioid crisis. The city has sued several regional pharmaceutical companies, claiming that their marketing methods have been misleading. They also are seeking to recover the costs of treatment and other expenses incurred by the epidemic.

Kenney also blamed the huge increase in prescription opioids.

"Doctors should do no harm, but they do … some of them," he said. "They should be locked up."

Luke suggested another way to fix the ongoing crisis. He said that while everyone wants the government to step in, parents can take preventive steps at home.

"As a father, I failed terrifically," Luke said.

He cautioned the crowd about the instant access to information – and criticism – on social media. Spending 15 minutes with your kids will do more good than 10 years of government changes, he said.

"You have the power as a parent to make real change," he said. "The best step in prevention is to get kids to appreciate their value and worth."