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Thursday, May 24, 2018 1:00 am

Task force has ideas to battle opioids

Local suggestions include education, eliminating stigma

RON SHAWGO | The Journal Gazette

More drug prevention education, streamlined intervention and help for those in the criminal justice system are needed to fight Allen County's opioid problem, according to a report released Wednesday.

While the opioid prescription rate is falling in Allen County and Indiana, the number of opioid poisonings is rising, the report said. The county had 74 fatal drug poisonings in 2016 and 126 last year.

The report calls for more education for children and parents about opioids and a seamless transition from identifying drug misuse to treatment. It also says more resources are needed to expand holistic treatment and to increase the number of mental health professionals.

The report was prepared for the Fort Wayne Allen County Task Force for Opioid Strategic Planning and The Lutheran Foundation by the Purdue Fort Wayne Community Research Institute. It is the result of discussions between December and March.

Representatives from mental health providers, law enforcement, social service and nonprofit agencies, the prosecutor's office, the judiciary and public health were represented on the task force.

On the positive side, Allen County physicians are writing fewer opioid prescriptions. From 2013 to 2017 prescriptions for controlled substances declined by two-thirds, the report states. It also points to the community's commitment, breadth of current treatment services, drug court, the needle exchange program and access to the overdose antidote Narcan as bright spots.

Still, the amounts of illicit opioids have climbed. The Fort Wayne Police Department seized more than 1,500 grams of fentanyl in 2017, compared with 10.3 grams in 2016. More than 700 grams of heroin were seized last year, an increase of more than 187 percent from 2016, the report said.

The report notes the importance of countering stigma attached to substance abuse. Of the Allen County deaths, the majority were middle-aged employed white men who died at their residences. Nearly three-fourths tested for opioids without a prescription.

Lessening the stigma attached to what historically has been termed drug addiction is a main focus of the report, which says the medical community is moving toward “substance use disorder” as the preferred language.

Stigma was “acknowledged as a barrier to seeking treatment and recovery and isolates people from family, friends, neighbors and the larger community when they may need those the most,” the report states.

Since 2003, Allen County has spent more than $1 billion in direct or indirect cost and in lost productivity because of opioids, said Rachel Blakeman, Community Research Institute director, citing a recent Indiana University analysis.

“I have a feeling that if I had sat people in a room in 2003 and said 'How would you like to spend $1.1 billion in the next 15 years,' opioids was not on that list,” Blakeman said.

The report recommends more money to pay substance abuse services, whether from private insurers or public programs; more mental health professionals; more access to and payment for medication-assisted treatment; and more residential facilities and other treatment and recovery options.

Blakeman said funding will be a topic at future meetings. But some recommendations are low-cost “if only we get the right people in the room,” she said.

“The opioid crisis touches all aspects of our community, but there is reason for hope in Fort Wayne and Allen County,” Marcia Haaff, The Lutheran Foundation chief executive officer, said in a news release. “This report is a deep dive into what is working here and how we can improve systems not just for those experiencing opioid use disorder but all substances, especially by reducing the stigma that surrounds this issue on all fronts.”

rshawgo@jg.net