State’s Opiate Action Team shines as a beacon of hope

Hardly a day goes by when headlines fail to bombard readers with the latest disturbing and anguishing chronicles of overdoses, deaths and other tragedies linked inextricably to our state’s harrowing opiate crisis.

What with death rates from the illicit drugs spiraling out of control, police and other first responders overwhelmed by rescue calls and health officials struggling to find adequate space for treatment, sometimes it looks as if there is no light at the end of this long, dark tunnel of doom and despair.

Fortunately for the millions of Ohioans impacted by this crisis, not all is dark and dank. State and local leaders have responded to the crisis with a variety of promising initiatives and have worked together cooperatively to channel limited resources toward maximum effectiveness.

Leading that effort has been the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team, comprised of leaders of several state agencies.

Its members include experts from addiction and treatment professions, public health, health care and law enforcement.

That team commanded by Gov. John Kasich makes eminently good sense. Just as the epidemic itself intrudes on multiple domains, any and all efforts to rein in its destruction also must be multipronged.

Toward those ends, the action team bills its work as “one of the most aggressive and comprehensive approaches in the country to fighting the opiate epidemic.”

Judging by the progress achieved by the team over its six-year existence, such billing is not braggadocio. Several members of that team this week visited Trumbull County, an epicenter in the state’s epidemic, to meet with local leaders on coordinating strategies.

Several team members, including Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services; Lance Himes, interim director of the Ohio Department of Health; Cameron McNamee, director of policy and communications for the state pharmacy board, and Col. Paul A. Pride, superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, also took time out to meet with The Vindicator Editorial Board to review the progress and outline the team’s ongoing challenges. That progress has been tangible. Consider:

Ohio has significantly decreased prescriptions for opiods, often a gateway into addiction. Between 2011 and 2015, 81 million fewer opioid doses were dispensed to Ohio patients. That progress can be traced to stricter guidelines limiting the number of permissible doses per patient and to a sophisticated monitoring system. In fact, the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System has been singled out by the American Medical Association as the most successful in the United States.

Countless lives have been saved through increased availability and use of Naloxone to police and other first responders. Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose, is now easily accessible and affordable to the masses.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol has greatly expanded its mission from focusing solely on traffic safety to more aggressively addressing criminal drug activity. From 2010 to 2016, patrol arrests for illegal drugs increased 136 percent. In 2016 alone, the patrol seized a record 167 pounds of heroin and 64,708 prescription pills.

Despite these and other successes, the Opiate Action Team and its allies in the Mahoning Valley and across the state cannot rest on their laurels. Reality comes crushing down all too swiftly.

That reality shows no end in sight to the skyrocketing toll of devastation that the opiate epidemic has wrought. As Plouck pointed out “We do not anticipate that the numbers [of overdoses and deaths] will be decreasing” in the state anytime soon.

That means the action team and its allies must double down to reinforce the solid foundation already lain.

Among other tasks, state and federal lawmakers must be convinced that funding sources to fight the epidemic – most importantly Medicaid dollars for treatment – must not be slashed, as President Donald J. Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposes.

With a forceful focus on those and other well-grounded initiatives and with utmost collaboration among all stakeholders, Ohio can continue to reign as a national leader in effectively fighting the war on opiates.

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