DIXON – Local health and law enforcement officials bent the state’s ear Monday on ways to help combat the opioid epidemic that’s hitting communities throughout the nation.
About 1,900 people died from opioid overdoses last year across Illinois, a 76-percent jump from 2013, in a tally that has grown to 11,000 deaths in the last decade.
A greater supply of synthetic, more dangerous opioids like fentanyl are feeding the epidemic – Illinois saw the number of synthetic opioid overdoses increase tenfold between 2013 and 2016 – and the state Opioid Prevention and Intervention Task Force was recently formed to find solutions to the problem.
“We are battling the deadliest drug epidemic in Illinois,” Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti said Monday during an opioid forum at the old Lee County Courthouse.
Dixon was one stop in a tour of communities that started last month to talk about the issue as well as the successes and challenges with local programs geared toward prevention and recovery. The task force aims to reduce opioid fatalities by one-third in the next 3 years.
Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health and co-chairman of the task force, commended local officials for their strides with the Safe Passage Initiative and the medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, program at the Whiteside County Health Department.
Safe Passage launched Sept. 1, 2015, in Lee County as a way for addicts to approach police, turn in their drugs and be placed into treatment without fear of being arrested. It was the second program of its kind in the U.S. and has served more than 215 people in the Sauk Valley.
“We have to reshape this war on drugs; it’s a failed war,” said City Manager Danny Langloss, former police chief and co-founder of Safe Passage.
MAT started in 2016 and combines behavioral therapy with medications to treat substance abuse like Suboxone and Vivitrol. Six have graduated from the program, and 37 are enrolled, Whiteside County Public Health Administrator Beth Fiorini said.
“We expect our numbers to continue to grow,” she said, adding that they soon plan to start giving presentations to high school students to promote awareness of the issue.
They’re both alternative recovery programs, like Lee County Drug Court, a specialty court where addicts can admit guilt and choose treatment over jail time. It was founded a dozen years ago and 111 have enrolled, with 47 successful graduates.
“We know we’re not going to arrest or convict our way out of this problem,” Lee County State’s Attorney Matt Klahn said.
Last year, misdemeanor and felony drug arrests decreased by 39 percent, and similar Safe Passage programs are on the rise including plans in DeKalb and Rock Island counties, Langloss said.
One challenge coming down the road is that recovery success depends on several factors, like immediate access to treatment and post-rehab programs, and more Safe Passage programs means it’s going to be harder to find recovery centers.
There are lots of empty beds in treatment centers across the country, but they’re pretty limited in Illinois, he said.
Linda Wegner, a Safe Passage volunteer and member of PRISM of Lee County, said getting into immediate treatment is critical, and being put on a lengthy waiting list can turn addicts away from seeking help.
“We need to get people help right away, we need more sober homes, and we need fully funded Medicaid,” she said.
Detoxing is the first part of an addict’s recovery, and support systems need to be in place to make sure there’s not a relapse, Klahn said.
Former heroin addict Nikki Masini, who has been sober nearly 13 years and works in the Lee County Public Defender’s Office, said one of the challenges of recovery is finding ways to keep busy and live without the constant rush of looking for the next high.
“Morning, noon and night we were looking for that high,” she said.
Fighting the epidemic also means finding ways to curb the root of the problem – about 80 percent of addicts started with pain medication.
The concentration of opioid medication prescribed to people for pain management has risen dramatically the past several years, increasing anywhere from three to 11 times the dosage as previous years, said Bryan Zobeck, a clinical pharmacist at KSB Hospital.
Increasing public education, more regulations with prescription opioids, and the reach of Medicaid could help the problem, said Patrick Phelan, president and CEO of Sinnissippi Centers, the behavioral healthcare agency that serves about 5,500 people a year across Lee, Whiteside, Carroll and Ogle counties.
Sinnissippi is working on creating its first recovery home to help fill the in-patient gap in the area, he said.
Information collected by the task force will be used to create an opioid action plan for the state.
“The opioid epidemic knows no neighborhood, no color and no class,” Sanguinetti said. “It is not confined to alleys in urban settings, nor isolated in rural communities.”
Opioids kill about 100 people a day in the U.S., a statistic that has nearly tripled since 1999, and Illinois received a $16 million federal grant in the spring to go toward fixing the opioid crisis, said Luke Phalen, a representative from U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s office.
State Reps. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, and Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, also attended the meeting.
HOW TO GET HELP
Under the Safe Passage Initiative, addicts can seek help by contacting the Dixon Police Department at 815-288-4411, Lee County Sheriff John Simonton at 815-284-6631, Whiteside County Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi at 815-772-4044, Rock Falls Police Chief Tammy Nelson at 815-622-1140, Sterling Police Chief Tim Morgan at 815-632-6640 or any Lee or Whiteside County law enforcement agency.
Call the Whiteside County Health Department at 815-626-2230 ext. 8 or go to whitesidehealth.org for more information about the medication-assisted treatment program.