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Erie County Legislature approves plan to combat opioid addiction

In the face of roughly 11 deaths each week in Erie County due to opioid drug overdoses, the County Legislature on Thursday approved a “crisis response plan” to better connect those suffering from addiction with services and expand Health Department programs aimed at addressing the epidemic.

Legislators unanimously supported County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s $375,600 proposal.

Lawmakers, however, passed an amendment stipulating that the county executive come to the legislative Health and Human Services committee session in September 2016 with an evaluation of the plan’s impact.

Lawmakers also said approving continuation of this program should be made through the normal 2017 budget process.

The two-part plan establishes a special 24-hour hotline to assist those addicted to heroin and other opioid drugs. The money will also fund an additional employee in the Health Department to expand training for physicians and community members related to addiction and overdose treatment.

The hotline, operated by Erie County Crisis Services, would be staffed with trained addiction counselors who can directly assist those in need and connect them with services that can help save lives.

Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said five full-time staff members will operate the hotline – the bulk of the program’s cost – under the guidance of a supervisor. Hotline counselors also would connect people seeking help to “angels,” volunteers who work with local police departments, she said. Those volunteers, when available, would be sent to make the initial contact with addicts and their loved ones to help guide them into treatment.

South Buffalo resident Debra Smith, who lost her son to an overdose in September, said the bulk of the money being earmarked for the addiction hotline is critical to addicts and their family members. She recounted horror stories of some addicts sitting untreated in waiting rooms for hours on end, and parents calling a long list of referral phone numbers, looking for help for their children only to face repeated rejection and long waiting lists.

“There’s people who are approaching me at work,” she said. “There are people who are approaching me at home. If there was a telephone line that could provide immediate help for people who need it, I really think it would be a lifeline.”

County legislators are in agreement that this crisis needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

“This is a common-sense beginning to address a problem that needs to be addressed,” said Democratic Minority Leader Thomas Loughran of Amherst.

But lawmakers also want to see the evaluation.

“We can’t just throw money at the problem and say, ‘OK, we’ve done something,’ ” said Legislator Lynne Dixon of Hamburg, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, who also works with a parent group and drug task force on the issue.

Members of the Legislature’s conservative majority say they want to ensure the money being spent will combat this crisis as effectively as possible since this will be a recurring cost.

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, R-Town of Tonawanda, said the county must look beyond basic implementation data suggested by Burstein and instead evaluate the program’s impact.

“You want to make sure you do the right thing.” he said. “This is too important.”