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Epidemic of heroin, opioids begs for solution

After so many overdose deaths, so many last-minute Narcan rescues, so many news stories, police reports and outspoken cries from heartbroken parents and friends, few could say that the community lacks awareness of the heroin and opioid scourge plaguing families in every city and town throughout the region.

But local experts acknowledge that there are no comprehensive community strategies to attack the problem of these drugs. The epidemic touches many people who need to play a role in the solution – schools, law enforcement, hospitals, and mental health providers, along with individual doctors, lawyers, lawmakers and victim advocates.

Every organization wants to do its part, but they aren’t working together, said Dr. Thomas E. Schenk, a pediatrician and chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York.

“I think that we’re way behind where we need to be,” Schenk said Thursday at the Erie County Legislature’s first public session to figure out the county’s role in saving the lives of people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers.

What the community needs, he said, is a leadership – an entity willing to develop and coordinate a plan with many participants on many fronts.

Legislators listened with grave attention as parents whose children died of drug overdoses dismissed the idea of glib, easy answers.

“It’s not all about willpower and abstinence. How could it be?” said Jackie Sullivan, whose son died at 36 from an overdose of heroin, cocaine and diazepam, an anti-anxiety drug. “If willpower had anything to do with it, so many more would survive this evil disease. Addicts do not want to die. They do not want to hurt their families, destroy their names, lose their jobs, possessions, their self-respect and the respect of others.”

Many things could be better – stiffer penalties facing dealers, more beds for those who need treatment, easier access to help – regardless of whether that person came through the health care system or law enforcement, better resources and training to help physicians prevent and treat patient addictions, more convenient ways for families and addicts to find help.

These approaches and others were discussed Thursday, but everyone agreed that no one answer is a silver bullet solution. Addressing an epidemic years in the making will take a complex and coordinated solution. But someone has to coordinate it.

Several speakers suggested that county government leaders and the county Health Department could step up and be leaders in this crisis. The department has already trained more than 7,600 community members in the use of Narcan, an overdose rescue drug. The department also is using a $64,000 Tower Foundation grant to expand doctor training, awareness, prevention and treatment programs in response to opioid abuse.

Starting next month, the Health Department will launch an Opiate Epidemic Task Force that, for the first time, will bring together numerous agencies and experts. That task force would form subcommittees – each one aimed at tackling a different element of the opioid epidemic, from community education to the decriminalization and treatment of drug users.

Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the Legislature will continue to hold more informational sessions down the road to help narrow and tailor what its role will be in the future.

Dixon expressed particular interest in improving public education about opioid addiction and looking at what the governing body can do legislatively to improve the situation.

“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” Dixon said, “but we, as a community, have to be as committed as we can.”

County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein said that small steps forward are finally being made.

“People are so frustrated, and wish we could just snap our fingers and get these programs in place to solve the problem,” she said. “But to do it right takes planning so we get it right and we don’t have to start over.”