It’s been more than two years since Avi and Julie Israel lost their son, Michael, to the evils of overprescribed drugs.
They’ve founded an advocacy group, Save the Michaels of the World; they’ve publicly shared their son’s story to help others dealing with similar grief; and they’ve walked the halls of the State Capitol in Albany to push for new state legislation that has been hailed as one of the strongest in the nation against the abuse of prescribed drugs.
What keeps them going, more than two years after 20-year-old Michael Israel took his life on June 4, 2011?
“What keeps me going is I get hundreds of letters and hundreds of requests: Please help me,” Avi Israel said Monday, before a news conference on the first anniversary of the new state law. “I can’t turn my back on this. I wish there had been somebody there for us when Michael needed help. This is something that needs to be done.”
Israel referred to parents like him and his wife, who either don’t know the seriousness of their child’s addiction or don’t know how to treat it.
“In my son’s case, it was a six-month window between ‘Dad, I need help’ and boom, a shotgun went off,” Israel explained.
The Israels were there Monday morning, among other parents touched by a similar tragedy, as two state legislators marked the first anniversary of the state law designed to reduce prescription-drug abuse, a law that adds an important new provision starting Tuesday.
The I-STOP Law – the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing – aims to improve the communication between prescribing doctors and pharmacists. The law now adds a new prescription drug database, hailed by supporters as the nation’s first such real-time online system.
Starting today, physicians will be required to check the registry before writing a prescription for most controlled substances. Pharmacists will have access to the same registry.
The intent is to slow the flood of excess opiates by reducing or eliminating “doctor shopping,” where young people addicted to prescription drugs use multiple doctors to obtain multiple drug prescriptions to feed their addiction.
“This new tool will work alongside other changes initiated by I-STOP to ensure New York State leads the nation in fighting prescription drug abuse,” State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said at a news conference in the Evergreen Commons, on Buffalo’s lower West Side.
Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo, referred to some users obtaining as many as a dozen different prescriptions for the same drug.
“The patient could always stay one step ahead of the system,” Ryan said. “That comes to an end tomorrow.”
Other parents who have lost their sons or daughters to prescription drug abuse stood behind the two legislators, along with the Israels, to hail the changes in the new law. The first half-dozen people signing in before the news conference were members of Save the Michaels of the World.
“This started out as Michael’s legacy,” Julie Israel said. “But it’s much bigger than just Michael David Israel now. So many other families are involved.”
Like Cheryl Placek of Niagara Falls, who lost her son, Daniel, 28, on Jan. 26, 2012.
“When I met Avi and Julie a week after we buried Daniel, my husband and I knew we had to do something,” she said. “This keeps us going, to help someone else.”
And Patricia McDonald, whose daughter, Adrianne, died at age 27 on Feb. 6, 2011, felt a similar kinship to the group, whose children died either from overdoses or by their own hands.
“Nothing really keeps me going,” she said. “I’m a different person entirely, but the only thing I can wake up to every day is to try to keep other young people from being addicted, to keep the doctors away from unnecessary prescribing.”
These families realize that the new legislation represents one of the first steps in changing the whole culture of the way drugs are prescribed now. They realize there are other key issues, including the lack of treatment facilities and detoxification centers for these addicts. And they point out that the face of drug addiction has changed.
“We don’t have any detoxification facilities for the new face of addiction – an educated kid from a middle-class family, a good student, with no criminal background,” Avi Israel noted.
Ryan and Kennedy also urged more local police agencies to take part in the state Health Department’s safe-disposal program, which provides a secure drop box for unwanted or expired prescription drugs.
Only five such drop boxes have been set up in the eight counties of Western New York.
Both elected officials also paid tribute to victims’ families for sharing their personal tragedies and helping get I-STOP passed, as those families sat behind them.
Avi Israel was asked what his son would say to him about his parents’ tireless efforts.
“Keep it up, Pop,” he replied. “He used to call me a crazy old man. Whenever I get something in my head, I stick with it.
“Michael would be proud.”