Readers and Tweeters Weigh In on America’s Medical Debt, Obesity Epidemic, and Opioid Battles

KHN gives readers a chance to comment on a recent batch of stories.

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

So, you're American, you have a lousy health insurance plan, you get cancer. You survive cancer. But can you survive your massive medical $$$ debt?

— Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett) June 17, 2022

— Laurie Garrett, New York City

Medical Debt as the Ultimate Medical Mystery

I read your investigation about health care and debt on NPR’s site (“Diagnosis: Debt: 100 Million People in America Are Saddled With Health Care Debt,” June 16). However, it seems the story’s focus is wrong. It shouldn’t be about how we pay for these astronomical medical bills but why are they so high to begin with? How do hospitals get away with their fees? For example, my daughter, who is 7, has been to the hospital/emergency room five times in her life. Each bill has been completely different with no rhyme or reason. The latest one was $7,000 for about a three-hour ER visit and for two IVs! It’s the highest bill we have ever seen, and that includes a two-night stay at a hospital. In addition to this bill, collections called us — and it hadn’t even been 60 days since our visit and had been only a few weeks since the hospital visit. So now our credit score could be affected, and we haven’t even had a chance to review or figure out how to pay this bill. Would love all this explained.

— Ilyssa Block, Kansas City, Missouri

A Hard-Learned History Lesson

Although I liked the article by Noam N. Levey and Aneri Pattani on people burdened by medical debt (“Diagnosis: Debt: Upended: How Medical Debt Changed Their Lives,” June 16), it uses the term “grandfathered in.” This term was used as a rule to prevent Black people from voting after the Civil War. Please make an effort to refrain from using this offensive term.

— MB Piccirilli, Portland, Oregon

Upended: How Medical Debt Changed Their Lives @khnews This has to stop! NFP healthcare systems destroying the lives of the people they are designed to serve?!? Unethical. STOP! #healthcare #UniversalHealthCare #MedicareForAll #bankruptcy

— Andrew Gallan PhD ⛳️🇺🇦 (@agallan) June 20, 2022

— Andrew Gallan, Boca Raton, Florida

Steering Clear of Predatory Billing

Every month I see and hear these “Bill of the Month” stories on NPR’s webpage or broadcast on the NPR affiliate station in my area (“Her First Colonoscopy Cost Her $0. Her Second Cost $2,185. Why?” May 31). Every month I pat myself on the back for having decided that there is no way I am ever going to put myself through so-called screenings, which are just one more avenue for the U.S. health delivery system to screw people over as that health delivery system is well aware that there is no oversight for this type of predatory billing. I can tell you at my age and with only Social Security retirement as sole income, I couldn’t ever hope to hire legal help to dispute a bill like those featured in “Bill of the Month” — a bill like that would either cause me to have an immediate heart attack or file bankruptcy or both. Nope. No screenings. I actually have decided that, if I have any choice in the matter, I will simply forgo any so-called medical care. Obviously, if I keel over and pass out and someone hauls my sorry self into the emergency room, I won’t have the choice (except to walk out once “revived”). Given the state of health care and the predatory behaviors of the bottom-lining money-hungry hospitals, clinics, and even just doctors, my choice is simply to opt out. KHN needs to use its voice to tell the U.S. medical community that people are so tired of the garbage that they simply refuse care.

— Jan Baldwin, Coburg, Oregon

First colonoscopy: $0Second colonoscopy: $2kAnother example of how the fine print can put patients on the hook for bills that should be covered, especially in this case of a preventative screening. Patients deserve better.

— Terry Wilcox (@Terrilox) June 2, 2022

— Terry Wilcox, Vienna, Virginia

In Michelle Andrews’ story about unexpected costs after a polyp removal during a colonoscopy, she states the anesthesiologist “merely administers a sedative.” This is an understatement. Anesthesiologists perform a review of the patient’s chart, see the patient pre-procedure, monitor their vitals during the procedure, and assess them post-procedurally. Furthermore, anesthesiologists are prepared to manage unexpected emergencies, including unexpected aspiration, allergic reactions, cardiac arrest, etc. This is more than “merely administering a sedative.”

We keep folks from dying or having complications and train a long time to do so. The flippant manner in which our actions are framed in the article is unfortunate.

— Dr. Elizabeth Leweling, Chicago

Preventive care, like screening colonoscopies, are free of charge to patients under the Affordable Care Act. @DrLindaMD @AlexMMTri @EvanKirstel @FriedbergEric @nkagetsu @rstraxMD

— Ian Weissman, DO (@DrIanWeissman) June 1, 2022

— Dr. Ian Weissman, Milwaukee

As president of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, I listened with interest to a recent segment on “All Things Considered” regarding patient cost sharing for a screening colonoscopy. The segment featured patient Elizabeth Melville, who received a bill for her screening colonoscopy that involved a removal of a polyp.

I was dismayed by the segment, which included several factually incorrect and misleading statements by Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, and which were incredibly damaging to efforts to eliminate impediments and misinformation about screening colonoscopy. ASGE has been at the forefront of policy efforts to eliminate patient out-of-pocket costs for screening colonoscopy, including those screenings that involve the removal of a polyp or other tissue. As the segment correctly noted, the Affordable Care Act provides for coverage without patient cost sharing of preventive services that have an “A” or “B” rating from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which includes colorectal cancer screening. Recognizing that colonoscopy is the only cancer screening modality that also allows for actual removal of precancerous lesions in real time (and thus preventing the cancer), it is particularly important that patients and consumers understand the facts.

Following passage of the ACA, legislative and regulatory corrective actions have been necessary to ensure that patients who undergo a screening colonoscopy that includes a polyp removal are not stuck with a surprise bill. As noted, screening colonoscopy is a unique preventive service in that it not only detects cancer, but it can prevent it through removal of suspicious or potentially precancerous polyps or lesions. In 2020, Congress passed legislation that would phase out by 2030 cost sharing for Medicare beneficiaries when a screening colonoscopy turns diagnostic during the screening encounter. That means, if a Medicare beneficiary has a screening colonoscopy today and a polyp is removed, that patient is likely to have an out-of-pocket payment obligation.

The difference in cost-sharing rules for commercially insured patients and Medicare beneficiaries has created confusion for patients, and the changes in regulation have created complex billing scenarios. Dr. Rosenthal referred to billing for colonoscopy as a “gray area.” This is not a gray area to ASGE, as coding rules are clear. But there are scenarios that could impact whether a patient has an out-of-pocket obligation for a colonoscopy. For example, often insurers will not cover a screening colonoscopy without cost sharing if the screening occurs less than 10 years after the patient’s previous colonoscopy. These shorter screening intervals typically occur when a patient is considered high-risk, or if there was a finding during the previous colonoscopy, such as a polyp, as used in your illustration. Many insurers regard these colonoscopies as “surveillance” or “high-risk” colonoscopies and will not cover them as a preventive screening without cost sharing. This is not the decision of the physician or hospital; this is a decision made by the insurance company.

I was particularly struck by Dr. Rosenthal’s comment that “it is not OK to change the game in the middle of the test,” which leads to a patient getting a bill. I want to be very clear that when a patient is scheduled for a screening colonoscopy, the physician performing the colonoscopy has no idea whether a polyp or tissue will be found and will need to be removed. This is not a “gotcha” game that physicians are playing with patients, as insinuated by Dr. Rosenthal’s remarks; there are coding and billing rules that must be followed when facilities and physicians are submitting claims to insurance companies. ASGE continually works to ensure that we educate and promulgate coding rules and updated guidance for our 15,000 members worldwide.

The cost-sharing policy for colorectal cancer screening, and screening colonoscopy specifically, is complex and confusing. We are disappointed that NPR did not use the segment as an opportunity to work through the complexity to provide consumers with a better guide of questions to ask their insurance company before scheduling a colonoscopy, including whether a screening colonoscopy performed at an interval of less than 10 years will be covered under their health plan without cost sharing.

— Dr. Bret T. Petersen, ASGE president, Rochester, Minnesota

Great Bill of the Month reporting today by @mandrews110 for @KHNews. Nobody likes getting a colonoscopy. Patients shouldn't be penalized for doing the right thing and getting recommended cancer screenings:

— Ryan Holeywell (@RyanHoleywell) May 31, 2022

— Ryan Holeywell, Washington, D.C.

Taking the Doctor’s Advice

Dr. Taison Bell was wonderful to listen to (“Watch: UVA Doctor Talks About the State of the Pandemic and Health Equity,” May 26). I really appreciated his presentation and the valuable things he had to say. Thanks for including it in your KHN mailing!

— Jan McDermott, San Francisco

I spoke with ⁦@hnorms⁩ from ⁦@KHNews⁩ about the state of the pandemic and health equity. There is still a lot to be done to movement smart policies that help high risk communities of color.

— Dr. Taison Bell (@TaisonBell) May 26, 2022

— Dr. Taison Bell, Charlottesville, Virginia

Mad Over ‘New MADD’ Coverage

This article is grossly inaccurate and insulting (“The New MADD Movement: Parents Rise Up Against Drug Deaths,” May 23). Most fentanyl users are not all-star athletes or honor students. Their parents are not more educated than the parents of addicts. And the parents of addicts have been mobilized for years, with many feeling that the fentanyl movement has distracted attention away from needed health care. The article says that the drugs are being introduced by Mexican cartels that seek vengeance against low-level dealers, many of whom are just friends getting things for one another. The article distinguishes between drug users and fentanyl “victims,” creating and reinforcing the stigma these groups claim to be trying to eliminate. It does a great disservice to those of us who lost children to addiction and overdose, and is insulting to our children and to us as parents. Thank you.

— Susan Elamri, Detroit

Interesting read detailing the lack of accountability for drug dealers selling fentanyl laced counterfeit pills resulting in death/overdoses. Consequences and rehabilitation should not be mutually exclusive solutions, we can do both.

— Chief Paco Balderrama (@BalderramaPaco) May 23, 2022

— Paco Balderrama, chief of police, Fresno, California

When ‘Overweight’ Is ‘Normal’

Quoting from the article “‘Almost Like Malpractice’: To Shed Bias, Doctors Get Schooled to Look Beyond Obesity” (May 24): “Research has long shown that doctors are less likely to respect patients who are overweight or obese, even as nearly three-quarters of adults in the U.S. now fall into one of those categories.”

Perhaps the answer is to change the scale of weight. Why do 25% of adults get to be called “normal” and 75% of adults are “overweight”? Let’s base the decision on reality-based observation!

— Leslie Rigg, Lake Worth Beach, Florida

1) Anti-fat bias is real and certainly an issue. For physicians and others who treat people with #obesity, the question becomes where to draw the line. 'Almost Like Malpractice': To Shed Bias, Doctors Get Schooled to Look Beyond Obesity via @khnews

— Stewart Lonky, MD (@LonkyMD) May 24, 2022

— Dr. Stewart Lonky, Los Angeles

Innocent Until Proven Otherwise

I wanted to raise a concern about the story “‘Desperate Situation’: States Are Housing High-Needs Foster Kids in Offices and Hotels” (June 1) — and it’s certainly not unique to your story. It says:

“These children already face tremendous challenges, having been given up by their parents voluntarily or removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment.”

Sometimes, of course, that’s true. But no reporter would write that every person in jail is a criminal. Many are awaiting trial and can’t make bail. Similarly, children can be in foster care for weeks, even months before any court ever determines if they have been “abused” or “neglected.” Until then, they are in foster care because their parents have been *accused* of abuse or neglect.

(Also, by the way, neglect laws are so broad and vague that often what the parent really is guilty of is poverty — but that’s another issue.)

— Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, Alexandria, Virginia

[Editor’s note: Thanks so much for your insight. The article has been updated to reflect that the parents are absent “due to accusations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.”]

.@sclaudwhithead looks at "hoteling," Georgia's practice that makes high-need foster kids sometimes sleep in hotels or offices. The pandemic made the problem worse, but state lawmakers spent more to try to pay extra for foster parents to take kids. #gapol

— Jeff Amy (@jeffamy) June 1, 2022

— Jeff Amy, Atlanta

Key to Harm Reduction: Buy-In From People With Addiction

With overdose deaths skyrocketing to never-before-seen levels, the United States needs harm reduction strategies to protect the health and wellness of Americans. In 2020, 41 million Americans needed substance use treatment within the previous year; however, of those who needed such treatment but did not receive it at a specialty facility, a staggering 97.5% did not feel they needed it. Although America has a troubling treatment gap exacerbated by systemic legal and regulatory barriers to evidence-based addiction care, most people who need substance use treatment don’t want this treatment as it is currently being offered.

To support our friends and family members living with addiction, our system must also embrace harm reduction approaches that engage people who use drugs (PWUD) before they are ready for abstinence-based treatment (“As Biden Fights Overdoses, Harm Reduction Groups Face Local Opposition,” June 14).

Harm reduction saves lives. Drug checking services and naloxone distribution prevent overdose deaths, while syringe and related service programs help stop the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. These are all worthy ends in themselves, but harm reduction has the further benefit of building a meaningful alliance between health care professionals and PWUD. With this therapeutic relationship, PWUD have facilitated access to high-quality, evidence-based treatment and services when they become ready for this help. It’s an obvious point, but too many people overlook the fact that a person can’t receive treatment or enter recovery if they’re dead.

As a physician, I swore an oath to do no harm — not to do nothing. Failing to embrace and expand harm reduction efforts, by definition, leaves too many of our friends, family members, and loved ones at an unacceptable risk of dying. The dichotomy between offering more addiction treatment and providing PWUD with the tools they need to live healthier lives is a false choice. The United States must simultaneously invest in treatment expansion and increase the availability of low-threshold harm reduction services; otherwise, I fear the country’s addiction and drug overdose crisis will continue to get worse.

— Dr. Brian Hurley, president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s Board of Directors, Los Angeles

. @POTUS wants to expand #harmreduction programs as part of strategy to reduce #drug #overdose deaths, but idea faces complicated reality on the ground as programs operate on fringes of legality, w/ scant budgets, & fierce opposition. @renurayasam @khnews

— Deni Carise (@DeniCarise) June 21, 2022

— Deni Carise, Philadelphia

How to Beat the Opioid Epidemic

Do you want to control the scourge of fentanyl in America (“The Blackfeet Nation’s Plight Underscores the Fentanyl Crisis on Reservations,” May 25)? There are two options:

1. Distribute the drug solely by the government, ensuring its purity, proper dosage, and safe setting for the user, providing real-time overdose care and optional consulting for anyone who wants to quit, all for free.

2. Make some nonaddictive antidepressants (generally SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) less restrictive. You know, how health care in your country is expensive, visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist, refilling, blah-blah. I know, the nation who can’t agree on banning AR-15s from being sold to 18-year-olds won’t agree on this.

What if you let people have some SSRIs over the counter? These are not recreational, are generally safe (way safer than opioids), and do help with anxiety. Hey, what drives people to opioids? Aren’t anxiety levels at their highest all across the globe?

Also, the drugmaker mafia will support it.

Just as we have embraced over-the-counter drugs for widespread diseases like colds, we might adopt the same concept in mental health care as well. Anxiety is becoming more widespread compared with colds (my gut says).

— Alireza Mohamadi, Tehran, Iran

Fentanyl spreads west, including to the Blackfeet Nation.

— Keith Humphreys (@KeithNHumphreys) May 25, 2022

— Keith Humphreys, Stanford, California

Dust-Up Over Pollution Coverage

This article appears written from a lopsided viewpoint (“Some People in This Montana Mining Town Worry About the Dust Next Door,” June 8).

Very few cities pass the World Health Organization’s unrealistic threshold of 5 micrograms per cubic meter, and why would you get a mechanical engineer to provide input on environmental issues? Why, because the real environmental specialist said this was not an issue? As for dust on a picnic table, that is a horrible example. We get dust on our picnic table anytime the wind blows, and we don’t live by a mine. Maybe WHO should recommend that the wind stop blowing because it causes dust.

From the WHO’s website: “In 2019, 99% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met.” This is not a reasonable standard and was selected by bureaucrats that are out of touch with life and the real world. All of the real information and statistics say there is not a problem, but your article makes a problem where one does not exist and people who are not willing to fact-check you will think there is a problem. All these people with health issues are unfortunate and that’s very sad, but people everywhere have sad health issues. Stick to the scientific facts and real monitoring numbers, and don’t drag “The Sky Is Falling” people into news articles. Facts matter!

— John Utaz, Salt Lake City

Cultivating an interest in ‘dusts’ at the moment and this article includes extractive industries/ mining.

— Cat Rushmore (@CatRushmore) June 9, 2022

— Cat Rushmore, Glasgow, Scotland

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

El nuevo movimiento MADD: padres toman acción contra las muertes por drogas

Siguiendo el modelo de Mothers Against Drunk Driving, que generó un movimiento en la década de 1980, organizaciones como Victims of Illicit Drugs y Alexander Neville Foundation buscan aumentar la conciencia pública e influir en las políticas sobre drogas.

La vida tal como la conocía terminó para Matt Capelouto dos días antes de Navidad en 2019, cuando encontró a su hija de 20 años, Alexandra, muerta en la habitación de su infancia en Temecula, California. La ira superó al dolor cuando las autoridades dictaminaron que su muerte fue accidental.

La estudiante de segundo año de la universidad, que estaba pasando las vacaciones en casa, había tomado media pastilla que compró a un dealer a través de Snapchat. Resultó ser fentanilo, el poderoso opioide sintético que ayudó a que las muertes por sobredosis de drogas en los Estados Unidos ascendieran a más de 100,000 el año pasado.

“La envenenaron y a la persona que lo hizo no iba a pasarle nada”, dijo. “No pude soportarlo”.

Capelouto, quien se describe a sí mismo como políticamente moderado, dijo que la experiencia lo volvió cínico sobre la renuencia de California a imponer sentencias severas por delitos de drogas.

Así que el padre suburbano que una vez dedicó todo su tiempo a administrar su imprenta y criar a sus cuatro hijas, lanzó un grupo llamado Drug Induced Homicide y viajó a Sacramento en abril para cabildear por una legislación conocida como “Alexandra’s Law”.

El proyecto de ley habría facilitado que los fiscales de California condenaran a los vendedores de drogas letales por cargos de homicidio.

La organización de Capelouto es parte de un movimiento nacional de padres que se convirtieron en activistas, que luchan contra la cada vez más mortal crisis de las drogas, y están desafiando la doctrina de California de que las drogas deben ser tratadas como un problema de salud en lugar de ser procesadas por el sistema de justicia penal.

Siguiendo el modelo de Mothers Against Drunk Driving, que generó un movimiento en la década de 1980, organizaciones como Victims of Illicit Drugs y Alexander Neville Foundation buscan aumentar la conciencia pública e influir en las políticas sobre drogas. Un grupo, Mothers Against Drug Deaths, rinde homenaje a MADD tomando prestadas sus siglas.

Estos grupos presionan a los legisladores estatales para que impongan sanciones más estrictas a los distribuidores y a las empresas de tecnología de cabildeo para permitir que los padres controlen las comunicaciones de sus hijos en las redes sociales.

Colocan cartels en las calles que culpan a los políticos por la crisis de las drogas y organizan protestas de “muerte” contra los mercados de drogas al aire libre en Venice Beach, en Los Ángeles y el vecindario Tenderloin de San Francisco.

“Este problema se resolverá con los esfuerzos de base de las familias afectadas”, dijo Ed Ternan, quien lidera el grupo Song for Charlie, con sede en Pasadena, que se enfoca en educar a los jóvenes sobre los peligros de las píldoras falsificadas.

Muchos padres se movilizaron después de una ola de muertes que comenzó en 2019. A menudo, se trataba de estudiantes de secundaria o universitarios que pensaban que estaban tomando OxyContin o Xanax comprados en las redes sociales, pero en realidad estaban tomando pastillas que contenían fentanilo.

La droga llegó por primera vez a la costa este hace casi una década, en gran parte a través del suministro de heroína, pero desde entonces los cárteles mexicanos han introducido productos farmacéuticos falsificados mezclados con el polvo altamente adictivo en California y Arizona para atraer nuevos clientes.

En muchos casos, las víctimas de sobredosis son estudiantes sobresalientes o atletas estrella de los suburbios, lo que da lugar a un ejército de padres educados y comprometidos que desafían el silencio y el estigma que rodea a las muertes por drogas.

Ternan no sabía casi nada sobre el fentanilo cuando su hijo de 22 años, Charlie, murió en el dormitorio de la casa de su fraternidad en la Universidad de Santa Clara unas semanas antes de que se graduara en la primavera de 2020.

Los familiares determinaron a partir de los mensajes en el teléfono de Charlie que había tenido la intención de comprar Percocet, un analgésico recetado que había tomado después de una cirugía de espalda dos años antes. Los socorristas dijeron que el estudiante universitario de 6 pies y 2 pulgadas, y 235 libras, murió media hora después de tomar una píldora falsificada.

Ternan descubrió una serie de muertes similares en otras comunidades de Silicon Valley. En 2021, 106 personas murieron por sobredosis de fentanilo en el condado de Santa Clara, frente a las 11 de 2018. Las muertes incluían a un estudiante de segundo año de la Universidad de Stanford y a una niña de 12 años en San José.

Con la ayuda de dos ejecutivos de Google que perdieron a sus hijos a causa de las píldoras mezcladas con fentanilo, Ternan convenció a Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube y otras plataformas de redes sociales para que donaran espacios publicitarios para mensajes de advertencia sobre medicamentos falsificados.

La presión de los grupos de padres también ha impulsado a Snapchat, con sede en Santa Mónica, a implementar herramientas para detectar la venta de drogas y restricciones diseñadas para dificultar que los traficantes se dirijan a los menores.

Desde los primeros días de la epidemia de opioides, las familias de las personas que se enfrentan a la adicción y de las que han muerto por sobredosis se han apoyado mutuamente en los sótanos de las iglesias y en las plataformas en línea desde Florida hasta Oregon. Ahora, las organizaciones familiares que surgieron de la crisis del fentanilo en California han comenzado a cooperar entre sí.

Recientemente se formó una red de padres y otros activistas que se hace llamar la California Peace Coalition liderada por Michael Shellenberger, un autor y activista de Berkeley que se postula para gobernador como independiente.

Una crítica de las políticas progresistas de California es Jacqui Berlinn, una empleada de procesamiento legal en East Bay que inició Mothers Against Drug Deaths, un nombre que eligió como homenaje a los logros de la fundadora de Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Candace Lightner, ama de casa de Fair Oaks cuya hija de 13 años fue asesinada en 1980 por un conductor ebrio.

El hijo de Berlinn, Corey, de 30 años, ha consumido heroína y fentanilo durante siete años en las calles de San Francisco. “Mi hijo no es basura”, dijo Berlinn. “Se merece recuperar su vida”.

Berlinn cree que la decisión de la ciudad de no acusar a los traficantes ha permitido que florezcan los mercados de narcóticos al aire libre en ciertos vecindarios y el consumo de drogas, en lugar de alentar a las personas que enfrentan adicciones a buscar ayuda.

En abril, el grupo de Berlinn gastó $25,000 para erigir una valla publicitaria en el exclusivo distrito comercial de Union Square. Sobre una resplandeciente toma nocturna del puente Golden Gate, el letrero dice: “Famosos en todo el mundo por nuestros cerebros, belleza y, ahora, fentanilo sucio muy barato”.

Este mes, el grupo instaló un letrero a lo largo de la Interestatal 80 en dirección a Sacramento que apunta al gobernador demócrata Gavin Newsom.

Reproduciendo la señalización utilizada en los parques nacionales, la cartel presenta un saludo de “Bienvenido al Campamento Fentanyl” contra una toma de un campamento para personas sin hogar. El grupo dijo que una valla publicitaria móvil también rodeará el Capitolio estatal por un período no revelado.

Mothers Against Drug Deaths está pidiendo más opciones y fondos para el tratamiento de drogas y más arrestos de traficantes. Este último marcaría un giro brusco del evangelio de la “reducción de daños”, un enfoque de salud pública adoptado por funcionarios estatales y locales que considera que la abstención es poco realista.

En cambio, esta estrategia exige ayudar a las personas que enfrentan adicciones a mantenerse seguras a través de intercambios de agujas y naloxona, un fármaco para revertir la sobredosis que ha salvado miles de vidas.

Los fiscales progresistas Chesa Boudin en San Francisco y George Gascón en Los Ángeles han evitado encarcelar a los traficantes callejeros, a lo que llaman un juego sin sentido que castiga a las minorías pobres.

Los legisladores de California temen repetir los errores de la era de la guerra contra las drogas y han bloqueado una serie de proyectos de ley que endurecerían las sanciones por la venta de fentanilo. Dicen que la legislación lograría poco además de llenar las cárceles y prisiones del estado.

“Podemos encarcelar a la gente por mil años, y no evitará que la gente consuma drogas, y no evitará que mueran”, dijo el senador estatal Scott Wiener (demócrata de San Francisco). “Lo sabemos por experiencia”.

Algunos padres están de acuerdo. Después de ver a su hijo entrar y salir del sistema de justicia penal por cargos menores de drogas en la década de 1990, Gretchen Burns Bergman se convenció de que acusar a las personas por delitos menores de drogas, como la posesión, era contraproducente.

En 1999, la productora de desfiles de moda de San Diego inició A New Path, que ha abogado por la legalización de la marihuana y el fin de la ley de los “tres strikes” de California. Una década más tarde, formó Moms United to End the War on Drugs, una coalición nacional. Hoy, sus dos hijos se han recuperado de la adicción a la heroína con la ayuda de un “apoyo compasivo” y trabajan como consejeros de drogas, dijo.

“He estado en esto el tiempo suficiente para ver el movimiento pendular”, dijo Burns Bergman sobre las opiniones cambiantes del público sobre la aplicación de la ley.

En diciembre, Brandon McDowell, de 22 años, de Riverside, fue arrestado y acusado de vender la tableta que mató a la hija de Matt Capelouto. McDowell fue acusado de distribuir fentanilo con resultado en muerte, lo que conlleva una sentencia mínima obligatoria de 20 años en una prisión federal.

Aunque Alexandra’s Law no logró salir del comité, Capelouto señaló que años se dedicaron años de cabildeo hasta que se aprobaron leyes más estrictas sobre conducir en estado de ebriedad. Prometió no renunciar al proyecto de ley que lleva el nombre de su hija, que escribía poesía y amaba a David Bowie.

“Voy a estar de nuevo frente a ellos”, dijo, “Cada año”.

Esta historia fue producida por KHN, que publica California Healthline, un servicio editorialmente independiente de la California Health Care Foundation.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).

The New MADD Movement: Parents Rise Up Against Drug Deaths

People who have lost children to pills laced with fentanyl are demanding that lawmakers adopt stricter penalties and are pressuring Silicon Valley for social media protections. The movement harks back to the 1980s, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving activated a generation of parents.

Life as he knew it ended for Matt Capelouto two days before Christmas in 2019, when he found his 20-year-old daughter, Alexandra, dead in her childhood bedroom in Temecula, California. Rage overtook grief when authorities ruled her death an accident.

The college sophomore, home for the holidays, had taken half a pill she bought from a dealer on Snapchat. It turned out to be fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that helped drive drug overdose deaths in the U.S. to more than 100,000 last year. “She was poisoned, and nothing was going to happen to the person who did it,” he said. “I couldn’t stand for that.”

The self-described political moderate said the experience made him cynical about California’s reluctance to impose harsh sentences for drug offenses.

So Capelouto, the suburban dad who once devoted all his time to running his print shop and raising his four daughters, launched a group called Drug Induced Homicide and traveled from his home to Sacramento in April to lobby for legislation known as “Alexandra’s Law.” The bill would have made it easier for California prosecutors to convict the sellers of lethal drugs on homicide charges.

Capelouto’s organization is part of a nationwide movement of parents-turned-activists fighting the increasingly deadly drug crisis — and they are challenging California’s doctrine that drugs should be treated as a health problem rather than prosecuted by the criminal justice system. Modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which sparked a movement in the 1980s, organizations such as Victims of Illicit Drugs and the Alexander Neville Foundation seek to raise public awareness and influence drug policy. One group, Mothers Against Drug Deaths, pays homage to MADD by borrowing its acronym.

The groups press state lawmakers for stricter penalties for dealers and lobby technology companies to allow parents to monitor their kids’ communications on social media. They erect billboards blaming politicians for the drug crisis and stage “die-in” protests against open-air drug markets in Los Angeles’ Venice Beach and San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

“This problem is going to be solved by the grassroots efforts of affected families,” said Ed Ternan, who runs the Pasadena-based group Song for Charlie, which focuses on educating youths about the dangers of counterfeit pills.

Many parents mobilized after a wave of deaths that began in 2019. Often, they involved high school or college students who thought they were taking OxyContin or Xanax purchased on social media but were actually ingesting pills containing fentanyl. The drug first hit the East Coast nearly a decade ago, largely through the heroin supply, but Mexican drug cartels have since introduced counterfeit pharmaceuticals laced with the highly addictive powder into California and Arizona to hook new customers.

In many cases, the overdose victims are straight-A students or star athletes from the suburbs, giving rise to an army of educated, engaged parents who are challenging the silence and stigma surrounding drug deaths.

Ternan knew almost nothing about fentanyl when his 22-year-old son, Charlie, died in his fraternity house bedroom at Santa Clara University a few weeks before he was scheduled to graduate in spring 2020. Relatives determined from messages on Charlie’s phone that he had intended to buy Percocet, a prescription painkiller he had taken after back surgery two years earlier. First responders said the strapping 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound college senior died within a half-hour of swallowing the counterfeit pill.

Ternan discovered a string of similar deaths in other Silicon Valley communities. In 2021, 106 people died from fentanyl overdoses in Santa Clara County — up from 11 in 2018. The deaths have included a Stanford University sophomore and a 12-year-old girl in San Jose.

With the help of two executives at Google who lost sons to pills laced with fentanyl, Ternan persuaded Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and other social media platforms to donate ad space to warnings about counterfeit drugs. Pressure from parent groups has also spurred Santa Monica-based Snapchat to deploy tools to detect drug sales and restrictions designed to make it harder for dealers to target minors.

Since the earliest days of the opioid epidemic, the families of people dealing with addiction and of those who have died from overdoses have supported one another in church basements and on online platforms from Florida to Oregon. Now, the family-run organizations that have sprung from California’s fentanyl crisis have begun cooperating with one another.

A network of parent groups and other activists that calls itself the California Peace Coalition was formed recently by Michael Shellenberger, a Berkeley author and activist running for governor as an independent.

One critic of California’s progressive policies is Jacqui Berlinn, a legal processing clerk in the East Bay who started Mothers Against Drug Deaths — a name she chose as an homage to the achievements of Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candace Lightner, a Fair Oaks housewife whose 13-year-old daughter was killed in 1980 by a driver under the influence.

Berlinn’s son, Corey, 30, has used heroin and fentanyl for seven years on the streets of San Francisco. “My son isn’t trash,” Berlinn said. “He deserves to get his life back.”

She believes the city’s decision not to charge dealers has allowed open-air narcotics markets to flourish in certain neighborhoods and have enabled drug use, rather than encouraged people dealing with addiction to get help.

In April, Berlinn’s group spent $25,000 to erect a billboard in the upscale retail district of Union Square. Over a glowing night shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sign says: “Famous the world over for our brains, beauty and, now, dirt-cheap fentanyl.”

This month, the group installed a sign along Interstate 80 heading into Sacramento that targets Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Playing off signage used at parks, the billboard features a “Welcome to Camp Fentanyl” greeting against a shot of a homeless encampment. The group said a mobile billboard will also circle the state Capitol for an undisclosed period.

New Billboards from Mothers Against Drug Deaths on I-80 in Sacramento. @StopDrugDeaths

— Mothers Against Drug Deaths (@JacquiBerlinn) May 12, 2022

Mothers Against Drug Deaths is calling for more options and funding for drug treatment and more arrests of dealers. The latter would mark a sharp turn from the gospel of “harm reduction,” a public health approach embraced by state and local officials that holds abstention as unrealistic. Instead, this strategy calls for helping people dealing with addiction stay safe through things like needle exchanges and naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that has saved thousands of lives.

The parent movement echoes recall efforts happening in two major cities. Progressive prosecutors Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and George Gascón in Los Angeles have veered away from throwing street dealers in jail, which they call a pointless game of whack-a-mole that punishes poor minorities.

California lawmakers are wary of repeating the mistakes of the war-on-drugs era and have blocked a series of bills that would stiffen penalties for fentanyl sales. They say the legislation would accomplish little apart from packing the state’s jails and prisons.

“We can throw people in jail for a thousand years, and it won’t keep people from doing drugs, and it won’t keep them from dying,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). “We know that from experience.”

Some parents agree. After watching her son cycle in and out of the criminal justice system on minor drug charges in the 1990s, Gretchen Burns Bergman became convinced that charging people with minor drug offenses, such as possession, is counterproductive.

In 1999, the San Diego fashion show producer started A New Path, which has advocated for marijuana legalization and an end to California’s “three strikes” law. A decade later, she formed Moms United to End the War on Drugs, a nationwide coalition. Today, both her sons have recovered from heroin addiction with the help of “compassionate support” and work as drug counselors, she said.

“I’ve been at this long enough to see the pendulum swing,” Burns Bergman said of the public’s shifting views on law enforcement.

In December, Brandon McDowell, 22, of Riverside, was arrested and accused of selling the tablet that killed Matt Capelouto’s daughter. McDowell was charged with distributing fentanyl resulting in death, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

Although Alexandra’s Law failed to make it out of committee, Capelouto pointed out that years of lobbying went into the passage of stricter drunken driving laws. He vowed not to give up on the bill named for his daughter, who wrote poetry and loved David Bowie.

“I’m going to be back in front of them,” he said, “every year.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


This story can be republished for free (details).