President Ronald Reagan kept a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that said, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
That spirit of unselfish teamwork comes to mind when reflecting on the successes of Erie County’s Opiate Epidemic Task Force. A story in The News last week reported that the county’s fatal overdose rate has fallen to a four-year low. The task force, under the leadership of county Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, is a big reason why.
As of last week, there had been 194 suspected or confirmed overdose deaths related to opioids in the county – still way too many lives wiped out needlessly, but a total that’s down by a third from two years earlier.
Burstein was a driving force behind the creation of the task force in 2016. Group members come from hospitals, addiction treatment providers, law enforcement, health insurance and family advocacy groups.
Burstein deflects credit for what the task force has achieved.
“We’re facilitators,” Burstein told The News. “We’re sharing ideas. We’re the connectors.”
One of the provider companies that’s involved is Evergreen Health, which works with drug users to help them adopt safer practices. Rather than a judgmental, “just say no” approach, Evergreen offers clients a needle exchange program, and hands out overdose rescue kits and fentanyl test strips, among other tactics.
A 60-year-old drug user profiled in The News uses the strips to test his heroin supply before injecting the drug. Fentanyl is a lethal narcotic that drug dealers will slip into batches of heroin to cut costs.
Another part of the collaborative framework championed by the county task force is a five-county program called Buffalo MATTERS. It’s a physician-led program that removes many hospital barriers to opioid drug users getting access to treatment.
“It’s unprecedented collaboration,” Dr. Joshua Lynch, founder of the Buffalo MATTERS network and a UBMD emergency medicine physician, told The News.
Emergency patients at participating hospitals are given an immediate prescription for buprenorphine, an opioid replacement therapy known under the brand name Suboxone.
More can be done, including persuading more police departments to join their peers in issuing the opioid antidote Nalaxone to their officers.
There’s no magical cure for opioid addiction, but cooperation and innovation among involved parties here is saving lives.