[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for his or her contributions in addressing substance use disorder. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of January is Senator Gene Yaw, a state senator from Pennsylvania who has been representing the 23rd Senatorial District since 2009. Senator Yaw serves as Chairman of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. He is also a member of the Appropriations, Judiciary, Law and Justice, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Banking and Insurance, and the Majority Policy Committee. Senator Yaw also serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Rural PA, a bipartisan, bicameral legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog.]

By Cole Gordner

It was a simple request – could he utilize his position as Chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania to spread awareness of the substance use crisis to rural areas of the state? As it turns out, this would be the catalyst for Senator Gene Yaw to become the de facto spearhead of legislation coming out of the Pennsylvania Senate relating to opioids and the substance use crisis.

From the moment I walked into Senator Yaw’s office, it was apparent that he is very passionate about his work and proud of what he accomplished during his time in office. Various awards, both from his time as a Senator and as Chairman for the Board of Penn College, lined his desk and the walls. At one point during our interview, Senator Yaw had to leave briefly to attend another meeting and was gracious enough to allow me to wait in his office until he returned. During this time, I was able to inspect a number of bills he had hanging near his doorway, obviously some of his proudest legislative achievements. Two of the four bills pertained to the substance use crisis: SB 1202 (Regular Session 2015-2016) which enhanced the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and SB 1367 (Regular Session 2015-2016) which provided opioid prescribing guidelines for minors, limited prescriptions, and imposed new penalties on prescribers who violate these guidelines.

Senator Yaw rose from humble beginnings. He grew up in the small town of Montoursville, PA and enlisted in the United States Army for 4 years before becoming a first-generation college student. After graduating from Lycoming College, Senator Yaw chose to pursue a career in law and attended the American University School of Law. After earning his J.D, Senator Yaw began a lifelong career of giving back to his community. He served as the Lycoming County Solicitor for 18 years, clerked for the President Judge of Lycoming County, and served as the General Counsel to the PA College of Technology, a public college in Williamsport, PA of which he is now the Chairman of the Board of Directors. In 2008, Senator Yaw decided to run for state senator of PA’s 23rd Senatorial District, a seat that he won and remains in today.

In 2011, Senator Yaw became the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan, bicameral legislative agency that serves to maximize resources and strategies for PA’s 3.4 million rural residents. Senator Yaw says that his election as Chairman and the aforementioned proposition were pivotal to his now passionate dedication to relieving the devastating impact the substance use crisis has had on Pennsylvania.

The initiative started out modestly. Senator Yaw decided to hold a number of hearings through the Center with the goal of simply raising awareness of the opioid problem. The first hearing was held in Lycoming County. It was slated to only last for 3 hours, but due to an overwhelming turnout, it ended up running nearly twice as long. At this moment, Senator Yaw realized the gravity of the issue; the opioid crisis is not just a rural issue or an urban issue, it is something that has the potential to affect everybody regardless of background. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania ended up holding 16 hearings on the substance use crisis across the state and issued two reports based on their findings. These hearings can be found here, and the reports can be found here.

Senator Yaw believes that the momentum that arose from those hearings resulted in more legislation than any other single issue that PA has had in recent history. Considering the legislative output since the hearings began, this is likely an accurate statement. Since 2015, the PA House and Senate have enacted laws relating to the opioid crisis each year. Most recently, during the 2018-2019 session of the PA General Assembly, the Senate passed a package of seven bills, all pertaining to the epidemic. This includes Senator Yaw’s own SB 112, which seeks to combat the opioid crisis by limiting opioid prescriptions to seven days unless there is a medical emergency involving the patient, as well as other medical exceptions. Senator Yaw says that common-sense legislation such as this is imperative to combatting the substance use crisis and it has the added bonus of not costing state taxpayers a single dime.

Demonstrating his knowledge of the issue to me, Senator Yaw also rattled off a number of other initiatives that have been passed or are currently being considered since he began spearheading this issue: Making naloxone more widely available to emergency providers and family members of those battling substance use disorder; enacting Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs in order to prevent doctor shopping both intra- and inter-state; mandating increased pain management training and drug dispensing education for anybody attending a PA medical school; and mandating counseling to minors (especially student athletes) who are being prescribed opioids. Currently, Senator Yaw is working on passing a bill that would bring greater uniformity to coroner’s reports when somebody overdoses.

The most paramount idea that Senator Yaw hopes to get across, and one that he brought up numerous times throughout the interview, is that addiction is a disease. He recognizes that there is a stigma around any form of illicit drug use and he even humbly admitted to sharing in that view before he began holding hearings on the crisis. But now more than ever it is imperative that people educate themselves on the topic and stop blaming the victims of addiction. To explain this, Senator Yaw compared it to a person with diabetes: “Some people can process sugar properly, and some people cannot. It all depends on your genetic make-up. Some people may be able to use a recreational drug once and be done with it, others become dependent and their body necessitates it.”

Because of this, Senator Yaw is also a big advocate for Medicated Assisted Treatment (MAT). MAT is the use of medication in combination with counseling treatments to help people overcome their dependence on opioids (it is also used to treat alcohol dependence and others). In these treatments, a patient will substitute whatever opioid they have been using for another safer drug, typically Suboxone or Vivitrol. They will take this on a regularly scheduled basis and slowly decrease the dosage until the urge to use becomes negligible. This has been somewhat of a controversial treatment for substance use disorder, but it has proven to be an effective method of overcoming addiction and allows the user to function in a more controlled way. He once again pointed to diabetes as an example for why this should be a more common practice: “If you’re a diabetic and you have to take insulin everyday that’s fine, but if you’re dependent on drugs and you’re taking more opioids to combat that dependency people look as if there is something wrong with you.”

Towards the end of the interview, I asked Senator Yaw if he had any advice for people who want to become more involved with the substance use crisis. His emphatic answer was to continue educating yourself. There is still misunderstanding surrounding the opioid epidemic and the people who are being affected by it and the best we can do is to keep learning as much about it as we can. He said that the skills he developed as a lawyer have been tremendously helpful to him throughout this entire journey – looking at the facts, talking to experts and getting first-hand accounts from those suffering, and then synthesizing all of that to draw informed conclusions about the nature of substance use disorder and the best steps forward. The more we continue to educate ourselves on the nuances of the substance use crisis, the better our chances will be to mitigate its devastating effects.