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Erie County opioid abuse task force meets for first time amid worsening epidemic

An Erie County task force to combat opioid misuse got to work Monday as the prescription painkiller epidemic worsens here and across the nation.

“The problem will not be resolved in the short term, but by coming together we can come up with solutions,” County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz told more than 100 people from an assortment of organizations who gathered at the county Fire Training Academy in Cheektowaga for the task force’s first meeting.

The numbers underscore the scope of the challenge.

Opioid-related deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers in Erie County last year hit 201 and are expected to double this year from the 128 in 2014. Moreover, the deaths cut across all age groups and parts of the region – the city, suburbs and rural areas.

“This is a crisis. We cannot keep doubling that number,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein.

The deaths cut across all age groups. ““The average age of the overdose victims is 38, but we have seen people as young as 17 and as old as 83,” she said.

Participants organized themselves into seven work groups, covering different aspects of the issue, from treatment and physician education to consumer support and medication-assistance programs for addiction.

The work groups will meet independently each month and then come together quarterly as they organize a more coordinated community strategy to address the problem, said Burstein.

The task force formed at a time when the country is grappling with how to deal with the prescription painkillers whose misuse has skyrocketed over the last decade or so as doctors were encouraged to treat pain more aggressively. Burstein came to the task force meeting with statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control that highlight how the problem begins with the prescription pad: health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers in 2012, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.

Meanwhile, eight Upstate New York members of Congress announced today that they invited the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to choose the region for one of its community forums on the national opioid epidemic. The first forum was conducted in December in Oklahoma.

“Between 2009 and 2013, 12 upstate New York counties saw the number of heroin overdoses jump by 417 percent and in 2014, New York State had 2,300 drug overdose deaths. These numbers are staggering and something must be done,” the representatives wrote in a letter to National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli.

The representatives include Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Chris Collins, R-Clarence; and Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport.