After emergency declaration, Johnson County agencies look to coordinate efforts to battle opioid crisis

Jay Senter - August 16, 2017 11:54 am
Increasing the availability of Naloxone, the anti-overdose medication, is among the ideas under consideration by Johnson County agencies to combat the opioid crisis.
Increasing the availability of Naloxone, the anti-overdose medication, is among the ideas under consideration by Johnson County agencies to combat the opioid crisis.

With President Donald Trump’s move last week to declare growing opioid addiction and overdose rates a national emergency, Johnson County agencies say they’re preparing to put into place an action plan to address the problem at the local level.

While the emergency declaration won’t have any impact on the resources available to county agencies to combat opioid abuse, Johnson County Mental Health Center Director Tim DeWeese said he believes it will add momentum to the work the county has already done to coordinate efforts. In June, the mental health center and the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment convened a forum on the state of the opioid crisis in here
and how public agencies — from law enforcement, to health services, to counseling clinics — can work together.

While not nearly as pervasive as in hard hit areas in Appalachia, opioid abuse is a growing issue in Johnson County. In 2008, there were 10 recorded instances of death from overdose here. In 2014, that number jumped to 28. There were 26 last year, and 2017 is on pace to see 22. Social workers in the county have already logged 1,307 contacts this year with clients who were current users of opioids.

Despite the growing issues, DeWeese says that Johnson County is in relatively good position to increase efforts to counter opioid abuse.

“Fortunately, here in Johnson County, we’ve already started to devise a plan,” DeWeese said. “I’m not sure that’s something you see at the national level, or even at the state level.”

Johnson County is looking at a three-pronged approach to coordinate anti-opioid abuse efforts, DeWeese said. Their approach would:

  • Increase efforts at prevention and education. These include training programs for students about the dangers of opioids, as well as making it easy for people to safely dispose of pain medication they don’t take.
  • Expanding access to treatment. This includes making the anti-overdose medication Naloxone more widely available and increasing access to medication-based opioid addiction treatments.
  • Reassess how law enforcement and criminal justice system address issue opioid abuse. This includes diverting those involved in opioid-related crimes out of the harshest paths of punishment within the justice system, making treatment for addiction more accessible in jails, and working to reduce access to the illicit supply of opioids.

DeWeese said he believes these efforts will play an important role in stemming the tide of the opioid epidemic here in Johnson County. However, he said, it’s important not to focus on opioid addition along.

“We have to be careful not solely to focus on overdose and abuse,” he said. “We have to look at some of the bigger issues that lead to these problems. Opioid abuse is a symptom, in my mind, of a larger issue, which is access to care. So we need to look at making sure people have access to mental health services and to addiction treatment services early.”

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