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Editorial: County needs to speed up addiction grants

The opioid drug crisis continues to worsen even as county legislators try to figure out how to spend a half-million dollars set aside for the epidemic.

So far this year, 226 county residents have died of overdoses, compared with 301 confirmed deaths for all of last year. But figuring out how to allocate a one-time grant by the Erie County Legislature to community organizations with worthy proposals for dealing with the crisis has elected leaders hitting the pause button.

The Legislature received 13 proposals and found just one worthy. Legislators will convene a special meeting later this month to take a closer look at the other spending proposals.

Evergreen Health Services got the green light to receive $235,000. It hopes to reduce risk to drug users, expand access to opioid replacement therapy, offer four mobile locations for syringe exchanges and supplement the county’s drug prevention campaign.

Still, just one proposal was approved in what was supposed to be a rapid response to the opioid epidemic. It was one of three proposals recommended by a panel of experts, which includes Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein and Mental Health Commissioner Michael Ranney.

The panel had also recommended a proposal to transform Neighborhood Health Center into a “best practices” primary care side, with new and expanded policies, training, screening and intervention for patients struggling with substance abuse, and one to help the International Institute of Buffalo assist human trafficking victims. The connection there is that victims forced into sexual slavery are controlled through addiction to opioid drugs.

Burstein, Ranney and other members of the panel have the expertise to select workable proposals, and their recommendations should carry weight with the Legislature.

Avi Israel, a victims advocate who heads the Save the Michaels organization and who submitted his own proposal for the entire $500,000, went too far in suggesting Burstein was underqualified to review the proposals because “she’s just a pediatrician.” Her resume, which includes writing national guidelines for the CDC, speaks for itself.

Perhaps Legislator Patrick Burke, D-Buffalo, who expressed his own frustration at the panel’s recommendations, had it right the first time. Give the Health Department the county funding and take the Legislature out of the equation.

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