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$1 million in search of ideas to fight county opioid crisis

A pot of $1 million is waiting to be spent on good ideas to fight the local opioid epidemic. But if you have a good idea, you'd better move faster than normal.

When it comes to addressing a public health crisis killing Erie County residents at a rate of more than one a day, decision makers holding the purse strings have been torn between the need for speed and the need for thoughtful deliberation.

Is it best to allocate money ASAP on good ideas the county already knows about? Or should leaders wait to see if even better ideas are out there?

In the end, Erie County legislators decided to take a two-pronged approach: The Legislature last week approved an "expedited" process to receive and select community proposals to address the overdose crisis. But legislators also have the option of moving ahead with good ideas they already are aware of.

Health Department officials said they will solicit community proposals for half of the $1 million to be spent from county savings. The county will hurriedly draft a request for proposals within one week, with the expectation that the Legislature could approve the language by June 9.

And instead of giving area health and treatment organizations a month or more to draft and submit a proposal for the county to consider, community groups would have only two weeks to submit their applications, Health Department officials said.

"I hope we hear from as many community organizations as we possibly can and get as many proposals as we possibly can," said Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, who co-sponsored the proposal with Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park. "Government has been trying to fight the war on drugs for years and barely made a dent. We need serious solutions and plans for attack."

Commissioners for the departments of health and mental health did present a laundry list of ideas at a recent Legislature committee meeting, but said they also support casting a wider net for strong proposals on how best to address the public health crisis.

Among the ideas already under consideration:

  • Provide better follow-up drug treatment to Erie County jail inmates once they are released.
  • Purchase and distribute a more advanced version of the overdose emergency rescue drug Narcan.
  • Pay for higher visibility public service announcements regarding bad batches of fentanyl drugs on the streets.
  • Contribute toward a 24-hour center for emergency access to drug treatment with additional medical care.
  • Create a tuition forgiveness program for those who enter the addiction treatment field, where shortages exist.
  • Add more "crisis stabilization" beds for those who need immediate assistance.

The proposal to spend $1 million from county savings to increase treatment access for drug addicts originated with Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo. Burke's proposal, introduced two months ago, asked that the Erie County Health Department allocate the money where it could be best used.

Burke said he anticipated the Health Department would consult with the county's Opiate Epidemic Task Force and spend the money appropriately. He has been opposed to a lengthy request-for-proposals process, emphasizing the urgent need for the county to act as quickly as possible.

"Saying we still need to figure it out is nonsense," he said. "We know where there's gaps in funding locally."

He also criticized what he described as the Republican-supported majority's pattern of usurping his resolutions, weakening the provisions, sticking their own names on the revised proposal and removing his. Burke was absent from Thursday's meeting and unable to vote on the Legislature proposal.

The new game plan for allocating the $1 million attempts to strike a compromise between the need to solicit and fund the strongest ideas, and the desire to act quickly.

Those in need of addiction treatment services, guidance or information are encouraged to call the 24-hour Crisis Services Addiction Hotline at (716) 831-7007.


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