New report suggests comprehensive strategy for dealing with Allen County’s growing opioid crisis

A new report details the opioid crisis and Allen County and suggests a framework for dealing with it. (AP photo)

A 49-page report released Wednesday sheds new light on opioid use in Allen County and suggests a four-fronted campaign against the growing crisis.

The “Turning Hope Into Action” report prepared for the Allen County Task Force on Opioid Strategic Planning (FATOS) and the Lutheran Foundation by the Purdue Fort Wayne Community Research Institute, said improvement is needed in prevention, intervention, treatment/recovery programs and law enforcement — some of which will require changes in attitudes and increases in funding. The document is the result of meetings conducted by the foundation between December 2017 and March of this year featuring representatives from several key fields.

Although the report acknowledges opioids have legitimate uses, it also illustrates how Allen County’s opioid-related challenge has increased even as the number of legal prescriptions dropped about 66 percent between 2013 and 2017. Allen County recorded 74 fatal drug poisonings in 2016, with 17 involving opioids and 52 involving unknown substances, but the fatalities increased to 126 last year — a 70 percent jump.

The report also makes clear opioid abuse defies stereotypes. Employed middle-aged white males accounted for the majority of deaths between 2013 and 2017, but prescription drug use is also on the rise among children in grades six through 12, where more than 22 percent perceive little or no risk to misusing prescription drugs despite the increasing deaths.

At the same time, the Fort Wayne Police Department seized more than 1,500 grams of Fentanyl in 2017, an increase of 14,500 percent from the previous year. Police also seized 700 grams of heroin, an increase of 187 percent, and non-fatal drug poisonings were up 49 percent. The opioid crisis has cost Allen County more than $1.1 billion since 2003, the report states, and more than $43.3 billion statewide.

The report does not lay out a comprehensive program for combating opioids but is intended to serve as a starting point for the discussions to follow. It suggests the need for additional programs to educate the public about the problem and how to prevent it; improved intervention strategies and resources; additional treatment options and changes to enforcement that would provide more recovery services for people in the criminal justice system and encourage people to seek help by allowing people to call 911 or surrender to police without criminal penalty. Law changes may also be needed to protect children in families affected by drug use.

Allen County already has a needle-exchange program, but the report also suggested the community consider an expanded medication-based treatment program using such substances as methadone despite “a substantial stigma in the local community.”

The need to eliminate stigma, in fact, is prominent in the report because many believe attitudes often deter people from seeking treatment. To that end, the report suggest such things as replacing “addict” with “person with substance use disorder.” The report acknowledges the important role to be played by the faith community but also notes some faith leaders, especially in some minority communities, tend to see drug use as a moral failing instead of a medical condition requiring treatment The report also urges multi-cultural training for professionals dealing with this issue.

Although the report focused on Allen County, it concludes that “the logical next step is to look at these areas across northeast Indiana, especially with how residents of those counties access services in Fort Wayne and what impediments exist. Many ideas suggested here can be implemented across geographies, like prevention education.” FATOS will reconvene to consider next steps the report suggests could “serve as a pilot or test site for statewide programs because of (the area’s) mix of urban, rural and suburban localities.”

Additional funding may have to be sought, the study acknowledges while urging that “FATOS and The Lutheran Foundation consider partnering with existing efforts to limit opioid use and increase access to treatment and recovery.”

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