Healthy Communities Council is adopting a more aggressive stance in bringing the community together to address Bartholomew County’s opiate addiction epidemic.

The new accelerated community effort will be led by a team of city and county leaders, including Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, Bartholomew County Commissioner Carl Lienhoop and Columbus Regional Health CEO and President Jim Bickel, said Beth Morris, director of Community Health Partnerships at the hospital and Healthy Communities spokeswoman.

The mayor has publicly identified the opioid overdose issue as one of the top priorities for the city administration in 2017.

As a start, the mayor convened a roundtable discussion with about 15 area mayors to talk about drug abuse and treatment in southern Indiana on Nov. 17, 2016.

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The mayor asked former Columbus Regional Hospital president John McGinty to talk to the mayors’ group about possible solutions to a lack of local treatment options. McGinty is working on the topic with a group from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and with Healthy Communities.

He also discussed Bartholomew County’s current efforts with Gov. Eric Holcomb in a meeting Tuesday at the governor’s office.

With no inpatient drug-treatment program offered in Bartholomew County, local people seeking treatment must travel to Indianapolis or elsewhere for residential services.

Healthy Communities has had a team working on mental health and substance abuse for about a year, and the new effort is an effort to accelerate that work and bring more resources to the table, Morris said.

As part of the effort, the council is forming three committees to focus on different aspects of the opiate epidemic — education and prevention, law enforcement and judiciary tactics and treatment and recovery, Morris said.

The council has recognized that the opioid epidemic stems from access to and addiction to opiates and limited treatment and recovery services and well as barriers to finding and affording treatment services, she said.

“We are like most communities across the country that suffer from the devastation this opiate epidemic causes,” said Lienhoop, who is a Healthy Communities Council member. “We are different, though, in that we have decided not to wait any longer to get serious about tackling this problem.”

One goal of the new aggressive effort about opioid addiction is to make sure the community understands the extent of the problem, and that it needs to be tackled as a community health issue and not a moral judgement, Morris said.

Many people who find themselves addicted started out by being prescribed pain medication for an illness or injury and then find themselves unable to stop, she said.

In 2016, the number of fatalities and overdose calls resulting from opiod use continued to rise.

Twelve people in Bartholomew County died from heroin overdoses last year, according to the Bartholomew County Coroner’s office. That’s more than the past three years combined. Six of those deaths occurred in the first three months of 2016.

Columbus Police Sgt. Jay Frederick, who also serves as a deputy coroner, said there have been no opioid overdose deaths reported so far this year. Frederick works with the Bartholomew County Substance Abuse Council, which serves as the hub for the grant-awarding process for local agencies seeking funding for drug abuse prevention work.

On Monday, substance abuse council members will meet with the Bartholomew County commissioners to propose council grants for this year, which are given in the areas of education and prevention, law enforcement and judicial and counseling, said Larry Perkinson, a member of the council and Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s employee and student assistance coordinator.

The council distributes about $35,000 to $40,000 to a variety of organizations, Perkinson said. Grants may range from as small as $300 to provide red ribbons for the annual Red Ribbon Week in October which promotes drug abuse prevention, to $6,000 to $8,000 for specialized equipment related to drug-related law enforcement activities for a police or sheriff’s department, he said.

In 2016, the county’s emergency operations center received 181 calls about all types of overdoses, compared to 115 in 2015, said Ed Reuter, director at the Bartholomew County Emergency Operations 911 Center. The number reflects overdoses from any cause, including opioids, prescription drugs or other substances, he said.

So far this year, the center has received 22 overdose calls in January, and five more in February, he said. Of the 22 cases in January, greater than half were heroin overdoses, he said.

The Columbus Police Department began to see significant increases in heroin overdoses in 2013, when three heroin deaths were reported, followed by five in 2014. Just one heroin-related death was reported in 2015, with the reduction attributed to wider availability of naloxone, an opioid antidote that is now carried by police officers, sheriff’s deputies and ambulance personnel.

Lienhoop made the opioid crisis a priority for his administration, creating the Heroin Overdose Response Initiative in 2016, announcing it in his State of the City address that year.

The initiative is designed to increase collaboration between the Columbus Police Department and the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department. When one law enforcement agency investigates a drug overdose, it must log the intelligence from the investigation in a centralized database that can be accessed by personnel from both departments. Additionally, the initiative is designed to increase consistency in the way each department investigates drug overdose situations.

This year will bring more collaboration among law enforcement working to address the supply side of the drug problem, Lienhoop said in an earlier interview.

The city this year agreed to hire two civilian administrative employees to take over duties once held by uniformed officers, which had been recommended by Police Chief Jon Rohde. Now those officers will return to the street as patrol officers, the mayor said.

“We’ve beefed up what law enforcement does to address the supply side. With respect to the demand side, we knew it was a much tougher assignment,” the mayor said.

Launch event

The public is invited to a launch event for a new initiative to address the opiate drug crisis in Bartholomew County:

What: Speakers Sam Quinones, author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” and Dr. Kendall Stewart, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer at the Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth, Ohio, are the guest speakers.

When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 19

Where: The Commons, downtown Columbus

How much: Free and no registration is required.

Please note: Copies of Quinones’ book are available at the Bartholomew County Public Library and Viewpoint Books.

Pull Quote

“We are like most communities across the country that suffer from the devastation this opiate epidemic causes. We are different, though, in that we have decided not to wait any longer to get serious about tackling this problem.”

— Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.