Three words are being used describe the local opioid and methamphetamine crisis.

“Complex, serious and gut-wrenching,” said Jeff Jones, executive lead for the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County, known as ASAP.

The myriad of problems resulting from narcotic additions virtually affects everyone in the Columbus area, Jones said.

But many essential sectors of the community are on board to take immediate, proven and effective steps to address the crisis, said Jones, a retired Cummins Inc. engineer who has headed the organization on a volunteer basis since April.

Story continues below gallery

Dozens of initiatives — described as a comprehensive system of support — will be outlined when ASAP presents its six-month update to the community from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 24 at The Commons.

During the public forum, the organization’s leadership team will participate in a panel discussion on general categories of the initiative: prevention (education), intervention (law enforcement, courts, government) and treatment/recovery (inpatient and outpatient providers), said Rachel Kimmel, ASAP communications director.

Community partners, including local health care providers, will be in attendance with information and resources for substance misuse, treatment and recovery, Kimmel said.

An ASAP initiative to establish an in-house addictions treatment facility at the Bartholomew County Jail was publicly shared during the county’s recently completed budget process, but details on other initiatives will soon be unveiled.

Treatment and recovery

Establishment of an inpatient treatment center for people who are not behind bars will be a critical element, Jones said. Initiatives will likely include creating a detoxification facility at Columbus Regional Hospital.

In addition, the alliance is expected to recommend forming stronger partnerships with existing out-of-county treatment centers located in central Indiana, Jones said.

While examining what other cities have done to address the opioid crisis, Jones said ASAP officials have discovered there are wide variations.

“Some may have more capacity when it comes to housing for men and women in recovery,” Jones said. “But where I believe Bartholomew County is potentially more capable is in terms of optimizing the system of support.”

However, the difficulties currently encountered while an addict seeking help tries to navigate through and around the current system support is “a glaring problem,” Jones said.

“Everything needs to be connected and supported in a way that results in an individual being able to find the right path toward recovery or simply acquiring the right information,” Jones said.

That same position recently was expressed by Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. surgeon general and former Indiana state health commissioner.

“We have to make it as easy for people to get help as it is for them to get high,” Adams said.

Recruiting a large number of organizations and qualified professionals to work collaboratively is essential in order to significantly impact and benefit the overall community, Jones said.

Drug court

Another key initiative will be the creation of a problem-solving drug court that works in a similar way as Bartholomew Superior Court 1 Judge Jim Worton’s Veteran’s Court, Jones said.

For a minimum term of one year, qualified defendants would:

  • Be provided with intensive treatment and other services they require to get and stay clean and sober.
  • Be given regular and random drug tests.
  • Appear in court frequently for progress reviews.
  • Be rewarded for doing well, or sanctioned when they do not live up to their obligations.

“A drug court will become very important in addressing many of the problems in our community,” Jones said. “There are plenty of examples of how these courts can direct the right people toward treatment and rehabilitation, rather than simply sending them to jail.”

If created, the drug court will be overseen by Bartholomew Circuit Court Judge Kelly Benjamin, Worton said.

Safe place

Another significant proposal that will be outlined during the forum deals with securing housing for former inmates after they are released from jail.

“We know that when someone is trying to remain sober and improve their life, going back to the same environment they were in when they were using drugs almost guarantees failure,” Jones said.

All initiatives are designed to assess problems, propose solutions and implement projects over a two-year time-frame, with the goal of building community capacity to prevent and treat substance use disorder, Kimmel said.

The proposed solutions come from individuals, agencies and organizations — such as law enforcement officials and judges — who deal with the problems of addictions on a regular basis, Jones said.

Trips to Decatur, Illinois, and Cincinnati were conducted by alliance members to gather research on how other communities are addressing the crisis, he said.

Prevention

Due to the significant associated expenses, much of the public’s attention has been focused this year on treatment and recovery proposals.

However, the work of the alliance’s prevention team headed by Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships at Columbus Regional Hospital, will be a critical component, Jones said.

More than 1,000 Bartholomew County residents are already suffering from addictions, and ongoing education and training will be essential in preventing that number from increasing, Morris said.

“If we don’t close or at least narrow the drug pipeline, we are going to have a need for more jail space, more courts, and more treatment and recovery facilities,” Morris said. “That’s going to be the most expensive way to deal with this issue.”

In order to prevent hopelessness and despair, employers should be encouraged to reexamine their personnel practices to ensure a felony conviction doesn’t keep recovering addicts sincerely working to rebuild their lives from making a livable wage, Morris said.

Despite perceptions that heroin is primarily causing the local overdoses, most have been the result of prescription pills, Jones said.

That’s why efforts should be taken to ensure patients aren’t provided with more pills than they need, Morris said.

Some responsibility rests with pharmaceutical companies who convinced physicians that new drugs for pain relief were not addictive, as well as hospital medical personnel who were trained to control pain aggressively, Morris said.

“When the state clamped down on prescriptions, it was easier and cheaper to get heroin than to get pain pills,” Morris said. “Nobody anticipated that would happen until it got out of control with deaths and overdoses.”

Some skeptical residents have been asking for reassurances that proposed solutions would take care of the heroin and meth problem.

However, Morris said society is still dealing with challenges after centuries of experiencing the consequences of alcoholism.

“But we can make a positive difference the same way we did with seat belt laws and curbing tobacco use,” Morris said.

Seventeen deaths from overdoses were reported in the Columbus area through June. If the number of fatalities continues at rate, there would be 34 overdose deaths by the end of this year.

“People don’t have to die in the numbers they are dying now,” Morris said. “We can do a whole lot better.”

If you go

What:  Six-month update and unveiling of initiatives from the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County, known as ASAP.

When: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 24. Open to the public, no registration is required.

Where:  The Commons, 300 Washington St.

Drug drop-off: ASAP has partnered with the Indiana State Police and Columbus Police Department to have drug take-back services at the event. Attendees may bring any controlled or non-controlled substances for disposal, with the exception of needles.

Information: Visit facebook.com/ASAPBarthoomewCounty or send an email to Rachel Kimmel at rkimmel@asapbc.org

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.