Two leaders in Columbus’ health community detailed how the city is organizing a coalition of local leaders to address a growing opiate-addiction problem.

Jim Bickel, who leads Columbus’ hospital system, and Beth Morris, Healthy Communities spokeswoman, talked to members of the Columbus Noon Rotary Club Monday about how opiate addiction locally is affecting families, the health system, law enforcement and social services.

Bickel, Columbus Regional Health president and CEO, and Morris, who directs community health partnerships for the hospital system, outlined the organizational strategy being formed as a response.

Bickel emphasized that the effort is not a Healthy Communities initiative or a Columbus Regional Health initiative, but rather one that needs to involve the entire community.

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“We’re not going to solve this in the first year, and we’re not going to solve this in the second year,” he told the Rotarians. “We have to take a long-term view. There is a societal cost that we have to pay attention to.”

Bickel and Morris also introduced Jeff Jones, a retired Cummins, Inc. executive, who is serving as executive lead for the Substance Abuse Crisis Community Response Initiative and began his first day in the volunteer position on Monday.

Jones, who has an office in Columbus City Hall, will work with Bickel, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Bartholomew County Commissioner Carl Lienhoop to direct three action teams to work on the substance-abuse addiction epidemic.

Jones said he has been focusing on family since his retirement from Cummins in 2014.

“I always said if I would get involved in something, it would have to be important and something that was urgent,” Jones said.

When he was asked to help lead the substance abuse initiative, Jones said he became more aware of just how engaged local individuals already were on this issue.

Faith-based organizations, law enforcement, the court system, social services and health officials are among many segments of the community trying to find a solution, he said.

“Everybody is working on it. And usually, when Columbus works on something, something gets done,” Jones said.

The mayor has publicly identified the opiate-overdose issue as one of the top priorities this year for the city administration.

During a question-and-answer session after the presentation, Mayor Jim Lienhoop gave a pointed reply to a comment about how frightening the circumstances leading to America’s heroin and opiate addiction crisis have been.

“Our detox center is the Bartholomew County Jail,” the mayor said. “And that’s not a slam on the jail. It’s just what happens.”

The mayor said most people who overdose have not actually committed a crime, and there is a limited time that law enforcement can hold individuals in jail before they must let them go, which sometimes results in the individual going back out on the street to overdose again.

“It’s a difficult challenge,” he said of law enforcement having to handle individuals detoxing from opiate addiction while in jail.

A three-prong organizational structure for the initiative has been formed with Jones as executive lead, including:

  • An action team on prevention will be led by Morris, who will work with employers, the educational system, social service organizations and mental health services.
  • Bartholomew Circuit Judge Kelly Benjamin is leading the intervention action team, which has law enforcement, employers and the court system.
  • Julie Abedian, Columbus Regional Health vice president for community partnerships and corporate responsibility, is leading the treatment and recovery action team, with health stakeholders, Centerstone, employers and others.

Bickel noted that treatment and recovery is its own separate action team as many individuals can be back on the street within hours after an overdose.

“Frankly there is a huge gap in local resources to address that,” he said.

Abedian, who is leading the treatment and recovery action team, said the group will be looking at state and federal resources to take advantage of allocations that might be available for communities that have a plan to provide treatment options.

Another aspect to the initiative is talking with groups such as the Columbus Noon Rotary, which is made up of leaders in the Columbus community, to explain the extent and seriousness of the problem and to “change the lens” of how the community views the addiction epidemic, Bickel said.

Bickel said the community needs to view the addiction epidemic as a chronic disease.

“Until we do that, we will be challenged to make an impact,” he predicted. “Many folks are touched by addiction, and more than the individuals are impacted. It has a huge family impact,” he said.

A group from St. Peter’s Lutheran Church has been researching how Columbus might use guidance and research from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation near Minneapolis, Minnesota. That outreach began after the church began struggling to find treatment options for those who came to their faith-based programs for help.

Retired Columbus attorney Charles Wells, working with St. Peter’s pastor The Rev. Mark Teike and former Columbus Regional Hospital CEO John McGinty, researched Hazelden’s programs with Healthy Communities in 2016.

In an earlier interview, Wells said the city and surrounding region needs more options — including an inpatient addiction treatment center, drug courts geared toward rehabilitating addicts and a system to help recovering addicts to restore their lives.

Teike and McGinty attended Monday’s Rotary meeting.

The community-wide initiative’s first step, which is underway, is to identify resources already in place in Columbus and Bartholomew County to determine if any are redundant, and to determine needs in resources, both people and dollars, Jones said.

The first major event the initiative has planned is “Moving the Needle: Community Forum,” scheduled at 6:30 p.m. April 19 at The Commons.

The event will feature a talk by Sam Quinones, author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” and Dr. Kendall Stewart, a psychiatrist from Portsmouth, Ohio, one of the American cities heavily impacted by the opioid epidemic, which is detailed in Quinones’ book.

Opiates and opioids

Opiates are derived from the poppy plant. Examples of opiates include heroin, morphine and thebaine. Examples of opioids are Vicodin, Percoset and Oxycontin.

— Provided by Healthy Communities, Columbus Regional Health

Save the date

What: “Moving the Needle: Community Forum”

Featuring: Sam Quinones, author and journalist, talking about his book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” and Dr. Kendall Stewart, a psychiatrist from Portsmouth, Ohio

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

Where: The Commons

How much: Free and open to the public

Overdose numbers

Calls seeking help for overdoses to Bartholomew County Emergency Operations have increased so far in 2017.

Those numbers show overdose calls increased in January from 11 in 2016 to 21 this year, and in February from 13 in 2016 to 31 this year, according to statistics provided by Bartholomew County Emergency Operations Director Ed Reuter. The number reflects overdoses of all types, not just heroin or opiates.

Last year, 12 people in the county died from heroin overdoses, more than the previous three years combined: three in 2013, five in 2014 and one in 2015. Also in 2016, the county’s emergency operations center received 181 calls about all types of overdoses — up from 115 in 2015.

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