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Mother who lost 2 sons to opioid overdose tells lawmakers more outreach is needed

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Becky Savage Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Becky Savage sat before the Senate committee, speaking in a calm, unwavering voice as she explained in detail the morning she discovered the bodies of her two dead teenage sons.

Savage's sons Nick, 19, and Jack, 18, died of acute alcohol and oxycodone overdose.

"Nick and Jack had attended graduation parties the night before, came home at curfew and checked in with me. I went to bed as they headed to the kitchen to make a snack. The next morning, I went to Jack's room and found him unresponsive," Savage explained.

She described to the panel of lawmakers how she fell back on her training as a nurse to respond to the unfolding events. Administering CPR, calling 9-1-1 and then calling out for her eldest son to assist her… but he never came.

"You see, Nick was sleeping in the basement with friends and when I called for help his friends heard me and tried to awaken him but he had passed away as well," Savage said. "How could two boys who have always seemed to make good decisions in life, make a choice that would ultimately cost them their life? My husband and I don't understand."

Savage went on to create The 525 Foundation in honor of her two sons, the name of the organization comes from combining the two numbers of her sons' hockey jerseys. She now speaks to parents and students about how the opioid crisis changed her life and the life of their family indefinitely. It was her work that led her to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Thursday.

The committee held the hearing to get a better understanding of the impact the opioid crisis has on families and children.

Committee Chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R - Tenn., cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in his opening remarks that the number of infants born in withdrawal from opioids tripled from 1999 to 2013.

"Babies born to mothers using opioids are at risk for neonatal abstinence syndrome or N-A-S and may go through withdrawal symptoms and may face other health issues," Alexander said. "The average cost to treat a baby with NAS is $66,000. The cost is a lot less for babies born to mothers in the program."

The senator said the 21st Century Cures Act includes $1 billion in grants for states to fight the growing epidemic, but he wanted to know if the federal laws and policy were working at the ground level.

"Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974 to combat child abuse and neglect and to provide funding for states to improve their child protection and child welfare services," Alexander said. "Due to updates, the law now requires the states to address the needs of both the infant as well as the affected family member. It requires states to collect new information."

The Committee's Ranking Member Sen. Patty Murray, D - Wash., called out President Donald Trump for inaction by his administration to fully battle the opioid crisis.

"Unfortunately, while President Trump has declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency - his promise to address it rings hollow today in light of the actions. At a time of public health emergency, President Trump's administration has been sabotaging our health care, making it harder for people to get Medicaid, which helps provide substance abuse disorder treatment," Murray said.

The senator added that she was pleased with how lawmakers on Capitol Hill continued to work together in a bipartisan way to make progress on legislation pertaining to the drug crisis.

"We need to confront the challenges of everyone this crisis affects and we need to do it in partnership with everyone who can help affect change," Murray said. "That means working closely with stakeholders ranging from federal, state and local governments to health care providers to educators, public safety officials and most importantly families."

Witness William Bell, Ph.D and president/CEO of Casey Family Programs, explained that opioids put a strain on families and communities. In 2016, more than 437,465 children were in foster care.

Bell attributed the increase in the number of children within the program to opioid use disorders and overdoses among parents.

"Research has shown that when parents are able to get into treatment programs with their children in a timely manner, two-thirds of them complete the program compared with only one-fifth of parents who complete the program when their children are not allowed to stay in the treatment facility with them," Bell said in a statement.


"For every $7 the federal government spends on foster care, only $1 is spent on prevention," Bell added. "We must reform how we spend federal child welfare funds to allow states and localities to be nimble and targeted in how they support those families that come to our attention."

The hearing's third witness, Stephen W. Patrick, M.D., Assistant Professor Of Pediatrics and Health Policy, Division Of Neonatology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said there is a real fear among expecting and new mothers to discuss or admit addiction. Patrick explained a recent situation he had with a patient.

The newborn baby was exhibiting some symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome, such as irritability, difficulty feeding, increased muscle tone and jerking. But the mother denied using drugs. They treated the child for the syndrome anyway and also drug tested the umbilical cord, which came back positive.

"She cried as I talked to her about the drug test, and wondered aloud if she would lose custody of her infant. She had been afraid of my response and the response from child welfare," Patrick said. "Like too many women I see, she became dependent on an opioid after an accident, was not able to get treatment for her opioid use disorder while pregnant and was too scared and ashamed to ask for help."

The doctor told senators that the research his team conducted showed from 2000 to 2014 the number of infants diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome grew sevenfold.

"Put another way, nearly one infant is born every 15 minutes with signs of drug withdrawal in the U.S.," Patrick added. "Every day, people are dying, pregnant women are not getting the treatment they need and infants are spending their first days or weeks of life in drug withdrawal."

In 2016, the number of deaths from opioid relate overdoses was more than 42,000 people. That is five times higher than it was in 1999, according to the CDC.

Of those overdoses, more than 40 percent were from prescription opioids.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D - Colo., and father of three teenagers asked Becky Savage what works best to try and get the message across.

"The kids really listen to real stories that happened. Statistics are nice and they will kind of listen to that for a little bit but to hear real stories and how this can affect them," Savage said.

But she said at some schools she visits children still don't understand how prescription drugs can be dangerous.

"Some kids don't understand how prescription drugs can be dangerous if they are prescribed by a physician," Savage told the committee. "They don't understand that you can die from trying something once. They don't understand that there are different strengths of medications. Which I tell them you shouldn't you're not a pharmacist. And you don't know what you taking when someone offers you something out of a vile of a Ziploc bag."