A realistic approach to the heroin epidemic will take legislators working not only with law enforcement, but with treatment centers, hospitals, schools, the insurance industry, families and communities, according to a panel of experts at Southwestern Illinois College.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, held a roundtable discussion Monday with representatives from various groups talking about efforts to combat the rising tide of heroin overdoses and deaths in the region and across the nation. Durbin has recently co-sponsored two bills regarding heroin and drug prevention, as the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States has more than doubled since 1999 — a 29 percent increase in Illinois alone since 2010.
Durbin has introduced the Overdose Prevention Act, which provides funding to community-based organization to purchase and distribute naloxone, an emergency drug that counteracts some of the effects of a heroin or opiate drug overdose. The funding also would educate prescribers and pharmacists and train first responders in using naloxone as a lifesaving method in case of overdose.
“These deaths affect the young and old, rich and poor — it is a problem that all communities face,” Durbin said. “With heroin and opioid use on the rise, why wouldn’t we do everything we could to give first responders access to life-saving drugs like naloxone? I will continue to fight to ensure that community groups and first responders on the front lines have the resources they need to prevent more individuals from falling victim to opioid abuse.”
Durbin also has co-sponsored the Recovery Enhancement for Addiction Treatment Act, which would lift the cap on the number of patients physicians can treat with medication-assisted addiction therapy. Currently doctors cannot treat more than 100 patients for addiction with medications to help ease them off their addiction, and Durbin said that means there aren’t enough doctors to help the number of addicts currently in need. The bill also would allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to treat patients in this way, while currently they are not permitted to do so.
Speakers included two parents, one who had lost her son to a heroin overdose and one whose son is currently six months sober, as well as a recovering addict.
Dave Admire’s son was prescribed Vicodin for pain following an injury playing high school sports, he said. The teen became addicted, and when he couldn’t get Vicodin from his doctor anymore, he found heroin on the streets, which is now available in $10 tablets.
There have been six rounds of treatment so far. He is currently being treated in Florida, because Illinois limits treatment to 21 days and elsewhere he can get up to two months, Admire said.
Kari Karidis’ voice broke as she talked about getting the phone call at work nearly two years ago, informing her that her son had died of a heroin overdose. Since his death, she has spoken often to parents about warning signs and the actions that need to be taken to save a loved one from addiction and the need for more resources for treatment. She said she doesn’t want other parents to have to go through what she went through.
“It is unacceptable that people who are the most in need, who have the least financial resources available to them, are being denied help for a disease,” she said. “And when they do get treatment, and it doesn’t work, they’re turned away...When someone gets cancer and it comes back, we don’t tell them they have to wait; we don’t deny them treatment and we certainly do not blame them for the return of that disease. And it’s a shame that that’s the way our addicts are being treated.”
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons talked about the Heroin Task Force he and other county officials formed in response to the growing rate of heroin overdoses in Madison County. Coroner Steve Nonn reported that as of now, Madison County has had 31 heroin deaths in 2015, including five in the last few weeks. “It’s more than we have ever had, and it’s only August,” Nonn said.
Madison County also has the Drug Court, which puts people charged with drug offenses through treatment and supportive programs rather than throwing them in jail. That program helped save the life of recovering heroin addict Kelsay Matchefts of Bethalto, who said she stole, cheated and sold herself to get heroin before she was arrested for residential burglary and required to go through treatment via the Drug Court.
Randy Jung, a psychiatrist with the Gateway Foundation, said if the patients don’t get the naloxone, then all the drug courts and treatment centers won’t help them because they will die. But he said they also need to focus on what happens to the addict after the emergency room or intensive care. There are waits of six weeks or longer for space in a treatment center, he said, and most addicts can’t wait that long for help.
“We don’t need to be powering down our hospitals,” he said. “We need legislation to be supportive.”
Jung said that 2010 was “a benchmark year.” In all the years prior to that, the most commonly abused drug in the United States was, naturally, alcohol; second to that was marijuana. In 2010, prescription drugs passed up marijuana to become the second most popular drug. “Doctors became a better source than dealers,” he said.
Officer Chris Coyne, a 19-year D.A.R.E. officer with the Troy Police Department, said he has lost five former students in five years to drug overdoses. “I’m tired of going to death scenes,” he said. “It makes you feel like a failure.”
Coyne said he and other officers have put together a presentation he calls “appropriately raw” and have scheduled at least 12 presentations already this fall.
“I want to get to these kids,” he said. “They need to see the pictures and hear from the parents.”
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.