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Will County SUI News Feed

Progress made on combating opioid epidemic, but still work to do
Tammy Reiher
/ Categories: Substance Use

Progress made on combating opioid epidemic, but still work to do

By Alex Ortiz, The Herald News, Feb. 11, 2018

95 overdose deaths in Will County in 2017
JOLIET – One year ago, Will County hired Dr. Kathleen Burke as director of substance use initiatives. 

A year into her tenure, there already has been progress made, but Burke said there still is a lot of work to do.
There were 95 overdose deaths in Will County in 2017, one more than the 94 in 2016. Yet, Burke said there were 26 saves just because of a new program for administering naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses. That means the number of overdose deaths could have risen to close to 120 last year if it were not for the expansion of the naloxone program. 
Joliet, because of its large population, had the most overdose deaths, according to Burke’s data. It’s been designated a “hot spot,” but she’s hoping a new program will help the problem.

A year into her tenure, there already has been progress made, but Burke said there still is a lot of work to do.

There were 95 overdose deaths in Will County in 2017, one more than the 94 in 2016. Yet, Burke said there were 26 saves just because of a new program for administering naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses. That means the number of overdose deaths could have risen to close to 120 last year if it were not for the expansion of the naloxone program. 

Joliet, because of its large population, had the most overdose deaths, according to Burke’s data. It’s been designated a “hot spot,” but she’s hoping a new program will help the problem.

The program is called Safe Passage. It allows for anyone seeking help with substance use to be able to go to their local police department. The program already was implemented in Lockport, where 13 people have been able to seek the help and treatment they need. The program also was established in Mokena, where nine people have sought help, and Lemont, which has had two. The total for the county is 48.

“It’s phenomenal,” Burke said. “We would like to expand this to all 23 of our police departments.”

Local governments have taken notice of the success of the program. Joliet Township just gave a grant for $150,000 to add social work support to the Safe Passage program. This helps local police departments because, Burke said, it’s usually volunteers who make the calls to determine where to send the person. If a social worker is there or on call, they know how to assess what the person’s needs are.

Burke pointed to Braidwood as the best example of progress. That city’s version of Safe Passage, known as the Change program, has been in place for about a year, and 24 people have gone into treatment through the program. 

Braidwood has come a long way. It had one of the highest per capita overdose rates in the state, one death for every 1,500 or so people. 

Now, Braidwood Police Chief Nick Ficarello said there has not been an overdose death since November 2016. 

Ficarello said his department and the city government have embraced the way of thinking about substance use that Burke has been trying to convince others of as the way to tackle the problem.

“People believe that having an addiction is a choice,” Ficarello said. “It’s really not. It’s a disease.

“They’re someone’s sons or daughters. Every life is worth trying to save.”

Still, there are some aspects to the epidemic locally that remain challenging. 

Will County has 1,060 people for every one behavioral health provider in the county. In the state overall, that ratio is 370-to-1 and nationally, the ratio is 560-to-1. 

“We are an under-resourced community,” Burke said. “We’re 200 percent over the national average.”

She added that there are parts of Joliet that are considered resource-deprived areas, meaning there’s a shortage of primary care, dental care and mental health services. Burke said that one of her long-term goals is letting more people know about available services and attracting more services to come into such areas.

There is one inpatient treatment provider in the county – Stepping Stones Treatment Center in Joliet. The center takes all payer types, whether the patient has private insurance, Medicaid or is not insured. 

There also are other outpatient treatment providers, such as the Gateway Foundation in Joliet and Brightside Clinic in Tinley Park. Family Guidance Center Inc. in Joliet, and soon to be in Braidwood, also provides outpatient substance use treatment and methadone maintenance. Methadone is used to block the “high” caused by using opiates, such as heroin, and can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. 

The county also has a few private providers, but not as many as there are in places such as DuPage County, Burke said. Also, low-income and uninsured patients might have a difficult time getting treatment. 

The Will County Health Department and Community Health Center also provide behavioral health services, but those have been reduced.

And there are obstacles at all levels, from different regulations in the law to cost-saving measures by insurance companies. Burke, however, has been trying to persuade all of her partners, such as those in Braidwood, to think differently about substance use patients.

She pointed to a typical example of someone with a headache who might start with over-the-counter medication. If that doesn’t work, they might go to stronger medication or seek a doctor. But for substance use patients, it’s different, and they require the most evidence-based treatment as a first option and over a sustained period of time. 

“Recovery is a lifetime,” Burke said. “We wouldn’t do that with a diabetic. We wouldn’t do that with a heart patient, but we do that with behavioral health patients.”

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