Lawmakers hear pleas to fight opioids

August 14, 2018 GMT

Opioid abuse is getting worse in Allen County despite a greater coordinated response from police, courts and addiction treatment providers.

Overdoses and deaths are mounting as addicts jump from heroin to fentanyl to methamphetamine, the latter supplied overwhelmingly by Mexican drug cartels.

The county jail is considering suspending mail delivery to detainees because they are smoking and swallowing paper products treated with liquefied drugs.

Sixteen people are waiting to check into a rehabilitation program.

Yet promised federal funds are slow to arrive at treatment facilities trying to meet growing demand.

Those were among the accounts that U.S. Reps. Jim Banks and Susan Brooks heard Monday during a 90-minute discussion of the opioid crisis with a dozen local stakeholders.

“I’ve never seen any issue that has brought leaders at all levels of politics together as much as this issue,” Banks, R-3rd, said at Indiana Tech’s Snyder Academic Center. 

“What is different from all of the addictions that we’ve dealt with ... is this one is killing far more people than we’ve ever seen before,” said Brooks, R-5th, who grew up in Fort Wayne.

Allen Superior Court Judge Wendy Davis said an estimated 60,000 residents of Allen County abuse opioids.

“The scope of the opiate problem here in Allen County is astonishing by any measure,” Davis said.

The county recorded a record-high 127 overdose deaths last year and 1,200 non-fatal overdoses, according to Fort Wayne Police Department Capt. Kevin Hunter.

“In my 29-plus years in law enforcement, I’ve never seen a problem this bad and this serious,” Hunter said.

The volume of heroin seized by police this year has doubled the amount confiscated in all of 2017, he said.

“The general public had no idea what’s going on, and they still don’t,” said Michael Landry of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The community has no idea how much it costs for the overdoses, the Narcan treatments, the ambulance drives, the hospital stays that we’re all paying for,” Landry said.

Marcia Haaff, chief executive officer of The Lutheran Foundation, said an effort is progressing to raise $3 million from state and private sources to add 79 drug rehab beds in the community.

“But that money is not enough. We need more funding to get more sober living in our community,” Haaff said. 

She said money available through the federal 21st Century Cures Act is “very limited in what it can be used for.” The funds can pay for personnel and equipment at treatment facilities but not for building purchases and expansions, Haaff said.

Beth Lock, director of governmental affairs for Allen County, said addiction treatment agency Park Center has received only about 1 million it was supposed to get through the Cures Act.

“I think it is critically important that dollars that you are passing at the federal level to the state, we need to make sure they are getting into the hands of the people at the local level who can respond to this crisis,” Lock told Brooks and Banks.

Dr. Deborah McMahan, Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Department commissioner, said the typical opioid abuser is a 40-year-old white male with a job and no involvement with the criminal justice system. She stressed that the drug epidemic is part of a “mental health crisis.”

“We need to be funding mental illness, including addiction, like we do breast cancer research, because it’s much more common,” she said.

Taking drugs “is so much easier than getting in to see any of us either because of the shame or because of the long wait or just because our infrastructure is simply not equipped to deal as robustly as we need to with mental illness,” she said.

“We are losing because (drug availability) is instantaneous, and we are taking too long” to intervene, McMahan said.

Banks and Brooks said they favor the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act, which has been approved by the House and awaits Senate consideration. The legislation contains provisions aimed at reducing opioid abuse and encouraging non-opioid pain remedies through Medicare, Medicaid and public health programs.