If asked to describe the opioid epidemic, what would you say?
Maybe you’d talk about an old classmate who, when addicted to prescription drugs, didn’t have access to a life-saving medication. Or maybe, you’d talk about a newborn baby who experienced withdrawal symptoms because her mother used during pregnancy. You might mention that drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US—or that opioid abuse causes almost 52 deaths every single day.
If you asked me that today, I’d tell you about Jason Simcakoski—a Wisconsin Marine who checked into a VA hospital seeking care for anxiety, but never checked out. In 2014, Jason passed away under medical supervision due to “mixed drug toxicity”: He was prescribed 13 medications in less than 24 hours and was found unresponsive in his bed. It was a tragedy that could have been prevented.
Speaker Ryan met with his family this week to discuss just what that prevention looks like. He met with Jason’s mom, Linda; his widow, Heather; and his daughter, Anaya—who’s about the same age as Speaker Ryan’s kids. The Simcakoskis are from Stevens Point, WI, and they came to Washington to share Jason’s story—a story of a Marine who sought help at a Veterans Affairs medical center, but was instead mistreated.
Now, his family is committed to doing everything it can to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. The PROMISE Act was named in Jason’s honor, with reforms aimed at increasing safety for opioid therapy and pain management, from updated guidelines to safe opioid prescribing education. It passed the House on Tuesday. The best part? The Simcakoskis were in the House gallery to watch.
“From what we hear, this rarely happens,” quipped Heather, speaking on the bipartisan nature of the PROMISE Act as it passed the House.
“This is the way it should be,” responded Speaker Ryan. “You should be proud of making this place work well.”
Indeed, this week, “this place” is working well. Over the past four days, the House passed 18 different bills designed to address the opioid epidemic. Speaker Ryan talked about some of these yesterday, like a bill to help youth athletes, and a bill to help babies born with a dependency.
The list goes on—you can see all 18 here—to promote ways to fight, treat, and prevent opioid addiction. Bills that empower state and local actors to do what’s best for their own communities. Bills that will hopefully lead to less addiction in America.
“You have no idea how many people come up to me, going through a similar experience,” Heather said on her way out. “People will never know the story if we don’t tell it.”
This is what our democracy is about—ordinary people making extraordinary things happen, even in the face of something as terribly cruel as this. Chances are, you may know someone engaged in a fight for their life right now—a fight you may not even know is happening—and Congress is hard at work to end this battle once and for all.
P.S. The meeting ended with photos on—where else?—the speaker’s balcony. It’s a view fit for a family of American heroes like the Simcakoskis—don’t you agree?