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Grant to train Erie County physicians to address opiate epidemic

Physicians who may be unwittingly contributing to the opiate addiction crisis, as well as those trying to fight the epidemic, will get training through a grant from a local foundation.

“When you have a communitywide problem, you need to have communitywide solutions,” County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Thursday.

“Opiate addiction is all over our community.”

Confirmed opiate deaths in Erie County total 147 this year in Erie County, according to the county executive. Many are related to heroin, which is easier and cheaper to obtain than prescription drugs.

A $64,000 grant from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation was announced Thursday morning. The Getzville-based organization supports programs that help young people affected by substance abuse.

The grant will be used to develop guidelines for health care providers who prescribe pain medications that can lead to opiate addiction.

“Our goal is to arm all health care providers … with the best possible training information for responsible pain management,” said Dr. Gale Burstein, the county’s health commissioner. “We need to make sure today’s patients do not become tomorrow’s addicts.”

Similarly, the county will work with community partners to develop and adopt provider guidelines to prevent misuse of prescription opioid drugs.

Grant money also will address a shortage of doctors for treating addiction, by training physicians to prescribe buprenorphine – commonly known as Suboxone, an opiate replacement therapy – for treatment that can be taken at home rather than in a clinical setting. That also will apply to naloxone – commonly known as Narcan, an antidote to opioid overdoses that’s increasingly carried by first responders.

“We will be … providing free training for area physicians,” Burstein said.

There’s a shortage of doctors who can prescribe Suboxone, although Burstein said she didn’t know how many there are.

“We know the supply does not meet our demand, unfortunately,” she said.

Burstein acknowledged the medical community’s role in creating the crisis that’s affecting not only Erie County but the whole country.

“There are pressures to make people feel better,” she said. “A little bit of pain is a much better outcome than a lifetime of addiction. There are strategies for pain management.”

Physicians representing the area’s major health care providers were on hand for the announcement.

Among them was Dr. Paul F. Updike, medical director of Catholic Health Sisters Hospital Addiction Treatment Program.

“This is a very, very complicated problem,” Updike said. “There’s a lot of hope out there; people can and do get better.”

Updike also acknowledged that physicians bear some of the blame in the addiction crisis.

“We need to take some responsibility for that and learn how to properly assess and treat patients with pain,” he said.