Local steps to stem the tide of opioid abuse are underway, with some initiatives targeted for implementation during the next 12 months.

About 250 people learned details during a panel discussion that was part of Tuesday’s community forum presented by the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County.

The first phase of initiatives, to get underway by the end of 2018, includes opening of at least one new residential treatment center; launching a program that provides nurse coaches to expectant new mothers, including possible addicts; establishing a family recovery court dealing exclusively in cases involving parental rights that arise out of substance abuse; and finalizing updates to health and science curriculum within the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. to address the opioid crisis, especially at the middle school level.

Initiatives expected to be introduced during the second year include establishing an addiction-medicine specialty practice in Columbus and creation of a drug court that will bring mental health, social service and treatment providers into the courtroom to help addicted offenders into long-term recovery.

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Also ahead: Placing a Windrose medical clinic within Centerstone Behavioral Health to provide additional medications and primary medical care treatment; and establishing a residential treatment center for addicted mothers from the region, as well as up to two of their children, modeled after the Fresh Start Recovery Center in Indianapolis.

Despite the enormity of the challenge, “it is not ‘Mission Impossible,’” said Jeff Jones, executive lead of the Bartholomew County initiative, who promised more details over the next two to three months.

Multiple efforts are being made simultaneously because the opioid crisis locally has become a life-threatening situation, Jones said.

Gasps were heard from The Commons audience after Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said more Americans died of overdoses last year alone than the number of U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War.

In Indiana, opioid overdose deaths rose 52 percent from 2015 to 2016, with a significant increase expected by the end of this year, the mayor said.

Although local efforts are just beginning, the alliance is already earning accolades at the state level, Lienhoop said.

A drug task force headed by Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is expected to announce that Columbus will become the model recovery community for the rest of the state, the mayor announced Tuesday.

“That places responsibility on us to deliver,” Lienhoop said.

Leaders emerge

In order to meet its two-year timetable, the alliance has either hired or recruited people to head the 10 divisions of its support system.

Dr. Kevin Terrell, medical director of the emergency department at Columbus Regional Hospital, will lead efforts to modify prescribing practices in the community’s medical community.

One of his team’s goals is to ensure that prescription guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and state guidelines are followed by local physicians. Another is to take steps to ensure patients have timely access to pain management, specialists and therapists.

Long-time community leader Cheryl Boffo will begin work full time next week as leader of the alliance’s treatment division. Meanwhile, Scott Hundley, director of counseling and community for Community Downtown, will lead the alliance’s efforts to develop a broad range of recovery options.

The group’s efforts to provide safe and drug-free housing for recovering addicts will be overseen by Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson, while the development of a central hub to provide support on several levels will be headed by Rhonda Fisher of Columbus Regional Health and Anna Hilycord of Centerstone Behavioral Health.

Removing stigmas

One of the alliance’s most significant goals will be to eliminate stigmas associated with addiction in order to gain communitywide acceptance for its proposed solutions, forum speakers said.

For people who advocate jail or prison as a response to drug use, “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” said Bartholomew County Sheriff Matt Myers, receiving strong round of applause from the audience.

“Stigmas are not going to help get us through this crisis,” said Beth Morris, director of community health partnerships at Columbus Regional Health.

“Addiction is a disease that takes over decision-making and judgment. When we understand that, it provides all of us with more compassion and connection with those suffering from it,” she said.

In reality, there’s plenty of blame to go around for the opioid epidemic, Morris and Terrell said.

Some medical professionals, a few pharmaceutical executives and select lawmakers must also share responsibility, the two hospital officials said.

When an 1980 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that opioid medications were not the cause of addiction issues, some pharmaceutical industries used those findings to their advantage, which led to excessive prescribing and marketing, Terrell said.

Prominent doctors received large amounts of money from drug manufacturers by going on speaking tours to claim certain pills did not cause additions, he said.

To make matters worse, the federal government started surveying Medicare patients on whether hospital doctors did everything within their power to manage their pain, Terrell said.

“Those patient responses influenced how much hospitals and physicians are reimbursed,” the doctor said.

Even today, there are still no set guidelines that dictate how much pain medicine is enough for different situations, Terrell said.

“We don’t really know when people are at risk of becoming addicted,” Terrell said. “We need researchers to figure that out.”

Online substance abuse resources

A new website has been launched as a resource for information by the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County.

The site allows users to:

  • Access prevention resources
  • Learn the signs of substance use disorder
  • Get information about treatment methods
  • Access the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Resource guide
  • Read stories of people in recovery

The web address for the site is asapbc.org

Alliance activities can also be followed on Facebook at ASAPBartholomewCounty.

What's next?

Next week, a drug task force headed by Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is expected to announce that Columbus will become the model recovery community for the rest of the state.

Over the next two to three months, several developments are expected to be announced that will provide more details on the initiatives shared with the public on Tuesday.

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