UPDATE: Aaron Brower followed up to correct a misstated fact. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America, not opiate addiction. Drugs abuse is one and a half times more likely to be the cause of death than any other accidental or unnatural cause.
Aaron Brower, former addict and founder of the National Addiction Foundation joined Glenn on radio this week to talk about the staggering opioid epidemic in America. In 1980, there were 6,000 deaths attributed to drug overdose. Fast forward 35 years, and more than 52,000 people died from drug overdose in 2015. An estimated two million Americans are dependent on opioids, with an additional 95 million using prescription painkillers within the past year.
“This is an epidemic. Where do we go from here? How can we help? Stop looking to the government,” Glenn said.
The importance of help and information cannot be overstated. That may seem simple, but many people, including family members of addicts, don’t know where to turn or how to navigate the complex health care system. That’s where the National Addiction Foundation comes in.
“There is help available. It’s just that people don’t know how to access it or know that it’s available to them,” Brower explained.
The most important thing, Brower emphasized, is getting connected to the right care, as well as exploring treatment and insurance options.
To learn more, visit the National Addiction Foundation online.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
GLENN: I will tell you that at one point in my life, I was addicted to opioids and — just through medical use. And it is horrendous. It is — you know, there’s something to say about drug users who are going out and storing drugs and everything else. Another about being addicted to opioids because of pain. And you — you want to get off them. You can’t get off them because of pain. And you can’t get off them because you’re addicted to them. And it is horrendous. It is horrendous.
I have been addicted to alcohol. And I’ve been addicted to opioids. I think I would take alcohol any day of the week over opioids. Aaron Brower is here. He runs the Southern California Addiction Center. And knows a little bit about it. He sounds very much like me, growing up. Began using alcohol and marijuana as a copying mechanism to deal with a traumatic event. And then in his mid-20s, he became somebody who was jumping in and out of court.
Welcome to the program, Aaron, how are you?
AARON: I’m doing great. Thanks for asking. Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it.
GLENN: You bet. Give us some stats. Because this is something that is going around on TV. But I don’t think people know how bad this really is.
AARON: Yeah, I agree with you, Glenn. I mean, it is absolutely the number one medical issue in America. You know, when looking at just the statistics you rattled off, which is just staggering when you really think about it, is you’re looking at, you know, in opioid overdoses, not counting all the other alcohol and drugs and cocaine and all that. In 2015, you know, it was four people an hour overdosed on opioids alone. You know, overdoses on opioids alone. When you’re looking at 2016, when you’re looking at the overdose deaths just like you talked about, it jumped almost 20 percent. I mean, when you go all the way back from 1980 to 2015, in 1980, there was 6,000 total drug overdose deaths, and now you fast forward to 2015, and there was 52,404 deaths.
AARON: I mean, it’s 1.5 times greater than any other killer of Americans.
GLENN: Than any other killer of Americans?
AARON: Any other killer of Americans.
PAT: Heart disease and all that?
GLENN: That doesn’t include heart disease.
AARON: It includes accidents, cancer, heart disease. Everything. The number one killer of Americans.
AARON: Five times greater than the second place killer.
GLENN: You know, in looking at this, you see in places like Ohio, where heroin has really — the heroin overdoses has gone almost to zero. That fentanyl is now the — the killer, not heroin, says something.
AARON: Yes, it does. And fentanyl is basically just a — it’s a thin — a synthetic painkiller. And most of the fentanyl that’s coming in is produced by Chinese companies. And then, you know, the Mexican cartels or whatever are mixing it in everything. When you’re looking in 2016, there have been over 35,000 drug possession charges — you know, where they’ve actually seized drugs and then tested it. In 35,000 different cases, they’re finding fentanyl and cocaine, heroin, everything. But what it is, is it takes very little heroin mixed with a little fentanyl. And then you get a drug that’s super potent. And the reason why it’s killing so many people is because it’s so hard to gauge. I mean, these guys are mixing it up in some warehouse or some back alley somewhere. They’re mixing it up. It is absolutely not an exact science. That’s why you get some doses that are extremely strong and some doses that aren’t.
GLENN: I will tell you, that fentanyl — I had surgery. This is years ago. And I had never even heard of fentanyl. And I — I have a system of a horse. You just can’t put me out. I’ve actually woken up on the operating table. I mean, they almost have to kill me to take me out of pain.
And I woke up and I was on a cocktail that included the fentanyl patch.
GLENN: And that patch scared the hell out of me, especially after my wife read that it said for end-of-life use only. But that is now being prescribed — my niece, who was in her 20s, at one point, was prescribed fentanyl patches.
AARON: Yeah, absolutely.
GLENN: It’s not something you hand out.
AARON: It’s staggering. Glenn, one of the scariest reasons you’re seeing this switch is I was in New Jersey at the New Jersey Hospital Association Summit. And I was there with my friend, Dr. Drew and Bob Forest. And then Governor Christie was there and Patrick Kennedy. All just absolute champions for this cause. And what’s interesting is Dr. Drew gave a talk and talked about the big lobbying. The Big Pharma and all that kind of stuff. And one of the biggest things that made this pandemic grow so rapidly is when Big Pharma was able to lobby and get pain as the fifth vital sign. I mean, think about that. You know, and so what happened is, back in the ’80s, doctors were being sued for underprescribing. Can you imagine ignoring a vital sign? You know, and so they got the fifth vital sign to be pain. And so with that, doctors that were underprescribing. You know, they were getting sued for underprescribing. And that sort of thing. Some of them in California actually lost their licenses.
GLENN: For underprescribing?
GLENN: Now we — do you believe we have a problem of overprescribing?
AARON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
I mean, it is just staggering. When you are looking at some of the communities that are just ripped, like Ohio. You’re looking at — in certain cities in Ohio and other places across America, certain counties, there are almost three prescriptions for Oxycodone per one citizen or, you know, per one resident. It’s just absolutely staggering. The overprescribing is just absurd. And it reminds me of a kid that — for example, this kid, Riley, here in Southern California, he was just a beautiful, beautiful 20-year-old boy. You know, went to Aliso Niguel High School. He was a football star. Had an injury in high school. Was prescribed Oxycotin. And then came across — and then obviously that turned into an addiction. And he was struggling with it and couldn’t quite kick it like you were talking about in your intro here. And what happened is he came across a doctor. Her name was — Dr. Lisa is what she went by on the streets. And, you know, this one doctor prescribed over a five-year period, prescribed over 27,000 prescriptions for Oxycodone and made over $5 million, killing 12 kids.
AARON: And you might have read about her or heard about her. She was the doctor that was sentenced just recently to 30 years to life in prison. And, you know what, we need to see more of this.
GLENN: So, Aaron, which — what’s really happening? Is it people trying to get high? Or is the — is the epidemic also include high numbers of people who are in pain, have had problems, maybe still have problems, but they just can’t get off of it?
AARON: Yeah, well, it — mainly, the more common story that we see in all of our addiction centers and that sort of thing and also at the National Addiction Foundation is you see just the story like I just said. You know, you see more so the cases of people having surgery, getting — you know, having an injury. And what happens is people have what you and I talk about or what you talk about, as far as core issues, whether it’s sexual trauma or whatever that is as a young adult. You have the unresolved issues.
AARON: What happens is, there — it’s way more likely to have an addiction issue, you know, let alone just national statistics say one in four people that are prescribed Oxycotin, for example, one in four with will struggle with addiction issues.
GLENN: The — the problem is I think the stigma that nobody wants to talk about it, nobody wants to admit that they are addicted to it. And then nobody knows what to do about it. So let me tell you —
AARON: That’s right. Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why I appreciate you, Glenn. Like, you wear your story of recovery like a badge of honor on your arm. I do the same. I’ve been sober now 15 years, coming up on 16 here. You know, recovering intravenous heroin addict and that sort of thing. And prescription pills and been there and done that. And we do. It’s the stigma. The stigma that comes about this is a moral choice. This is something that they’re just acting bad. No, it’s a disease. You know, it’s been diagnosed as a disease. And it is a disease. And so, you know, crushing that stigma. Guys like you and I and that sort of thing is one of the most important things we can do.
GLENN: So, Aaron, I’m going to ask you for — if somebody is listening and they are addicted or they have somebody who is addicted, what can they do? You know, yesterday, with the national health care garbage, you know, we’re not going to find an answer in Washington. We need to find it ourselves. So what can people do? I’ll come back to you with that in just a second.
GLENN: Welcome back to the program. I’m so glad that you have tuned in today.
All right. So — so, Aaron — Aaron Brower from the Southern California Addiction Center. So what does somebody that is listening do if they are addicted through a prescription or if they know somebody that is addicted? What do they do?
AARON: Well, you know, Glenn, thanks for asking that question. Finding the right kind of care for somebody, if you’re addicted and you’re trying to find the right kind of care, to see what kind of options are out there for you. It’s just — it is a web. And insurance companies make it very, very difficult. You know, as difficult as they can in order to get — to allow people to access their benefits.
I founded this National Addiction Foundation. This nationaladdictionfoundation.org. It’s a nonprofit. And what’s interesting is, there is help available. It’s just that people don’t know how to access it.
Or know that it’s available to them. And so what happens is, for example — I mean, the most important thing, Glenn, is to get connected to the right care. You want to make sure that if somebody is struggling, that they get connected to the appropriate kind of care. Like, for example, if somebody has a sexual trauma from an early age or something, they need to get connected to a place that has trauma therapy. You know, if they are — if they can’t — if they have recently had what’s called a triggering event, there’s lots of different options for them.
When I’m talking about that, a lot of people don’t know a lot of the things we know in the industry and have learned over the years. Like, for example, you know, people don’t know that, let’s say your son or your daughter gets arrested. They end up going to jail for a drug possession. Then they’re released from jail. Well, that’s a qualifying event to get insurance year around. Okay?
So you no longer to have wait for the open enrollment period for insurance. Like, for example, other triggering events. A divorce. Going to jail. Moving from state to state. Those are all qualifying events that get insurance year around. And most these kids — what’s amazing is you have these families call in to our foundation, and we just guide people through that process.
And you see such a high percentage of them. Let’s say, you know, little Cindy gets arrested. And then all of a sudden you tell the mom, hey, without release paperwork from jail, you put it together with an application for an insurance company, you submit it. And then within 30 days, you know, your insurance is available to help them.
There are also a lot of free resources available to people, okay? So what we’ve done is we’ve created a large database, a nationwide database, if somebody is calling from San Francisco. You know, we can help guide them through that process in getting connected to the indigent facilities around, if they haven’t had a qualifying event —
GLENN: Yeah, I don’t think we have any of those in San Francisco. So don’t worry about that one.
AARON: Yeah. So there are ways to get help. It’s just a matter of having the knowledge to be able to access it. There are grants. There are all sorts of stuff out there that can help people obtain coverage in order to get — to get care.
GLENN: You know, this is what killed my mother. She was addicted to prescription drugs. And she needed to move away from the doctor. Because she knew the doctor, you know, would continue to prescribe. This is in the ’70s.
And so we moved away. And then she switched her drug of choice. And within a year was — was dead because, you know, there was no help. She tried to do it by herself. And, you know, depending on where you are, you can’t do it by yourself.
AARON: No, you can’t. And that’s why help is so important. And things like the National Addiction Foundation and other great resources out there — I mean, there is help available for people — you know, passionate people like ourselves that will hold their hand, walk them through the process.
And a lot of times, what’s kind of interesting is a lot of times, you know, the addict is not ready or the alcoholic is not ready. And so one thing that we love to do through our foundation is we — you know, we’ll call — if they call in and they’re not ready, we’ll talk to them for another 20, 30 minutes. And then we’ll call them back in three days and just shower love upon them. Because what happens is the families and everyone around them, it’s a painful thing, addiction is. Okay?
They steal. They lie. They — you know, when you’re in active addiction, those sort of things happen. Are they thieves? No. They’re in active addiction. Are they liars? No. They’re in active addiction. And so what happens is the addictive process just isolates these people. As you know and I know, it just isolates these people and puts them on an island alone. And that’s why it’s so difficult. Because half the time they’re on an island alone.
GLENN: All right. Nationaladdictionfoundation.org. Nationaladdictionfoundation.org. Aaron, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
AARON: Thank you so much, Glenn. I really appreciate it.
GLENN: You bet. God bless.
As somebody who has gone through addiction, I want you to know I understand how hard it is. And I know what you probably feel about yourself today. And I want you to know that there is help. There are ways to stop this because I know you want to stop it. You just don’t see a way around it. Please, reach out and get help because what’s waiting for you on the other side is unbelievably great and warm.