Out-of-the-box efforts to curtail the effects of the opioid epidemic have proven to be most helpful, but there is much work still to be done.
A willingness to try unconventional solutions and the ability to shoulder political heat seems to be the common thread among areas of the nation that have witnessed progress in the fight against the opioid epidemic. There’s no easy way to stop opioid overdose deaths in addicts or is there a one-size-fits-all strategy. The overall death toll reached 47,600 in 2017. However creative, concerted efforts have proven to offer some hope.
In Burlington, Vermont, a city of about 42,000, Mayor Miro Weinberger and Police Chief Brandon del Pozo have partnered to unload naloxone to everyone in their community. Del Pozo said he has no patience for “stock solutions” that don’t work. In October, he posted on Facebook that he’s tired of arguing with other sheriffs who don’t want “their deputies carrying naloxone” and “getting mocked by reactionaries because I won’t arrest desperate people for using nonprescribed addiction treatment meds.”
Burlington has joined forces with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to use science-based methods, including connecting people with long-term treatment options. Vermont has made that easier with a model hub-and-spoke system, where hubs are treatment centers and spokes are smaller clinics and physicians who ensure that treatment continues.
In Rhode Island, a first-of-its-kind program to provide inmates with medication-assisted treatment has reduced overdose deaths by more than 60 percent among addicts recently released from prison. They are abstinent when they leave prison and have a lower tolerance, so addicts can easily overdose if they relapse. Now, every individual who enters prison or jail is tested for opioid use disorder and offered counseling plus approved medications to reduce cravings.
In Ohio, second highest in the nation for its drug overdose death rate, Republican Gov. John Kasich took advantage of the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid for low-income Ohio residents. With thousands more addicted people accessing treatment through Medicaid, the state has been free to use other federal funds to support such things as stable housing those leaving rehab and opportunities for immediate, sustainable employment.
“What keeps people in recovery is hope that life can be better,” says Mark Hurst, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Hamilton County, Ohio, has drastically reduced opioid overdose deaths by more than 30 percent in only six months after distributing more than 28,000 doses of Narcan, a nasal spray form of naloxone, to the public. Follow-up includes connecting people with medication-based treatment options to promote long-term recovery.
Dayton, Ohio, is also sending police officers, social workers, and people realizing the benefits of treatment into the homes of those recently rescued from an overdose. All this has led to signs of progress in Ohio with a statewide decline of 40 percent in overdose deaths in the first five months of 2018.
In Oregon, a similar effort to get the public’s hands on naloxone is underway. In the first six months of 2018, Max’s Mission has trained over 475 people and distributed more than 375 free doses of naloxone. Oregon residents can pick up supplies to keep on hand on certain distribution dates. Co-founder and Executive Director Julia Pinsky began the nonprofit with her husband, David, in 2016.
Nationally, however, opioid deaths increased in 2017, mostly due to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Addicts are turning to stronger, easier-to-access means to get high. And, while these out-of-the-box efforts have been helpful in curtailing the effects of the epidemic, there is much work still to be done.