Indiana ranks among the worst states nationally when it comes to opioid abuse — with drug overdoses in 2014 claiming more than 1,100 lives and costing the state $1.4 billion. But this year, we also may be one of the best positioned places to tackle the opioid epidemic by addressing its root causes and fundamentally changing the way our state helps people struggling to overcome addiction.
There’s unprecedented momentum at the state and local levels to make conquering opioid addiction — including heroin and prescription painkillers — a top priority. And Hoosier leaders from both sides of the political aisle are taking steps to address the substance abuse crisis.
Republican Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signaled the urgency of our state’s opioid challenge through one of his first actions after being sworn in: creating a Cabinet-level position charged with addressing Indiana’s drug epidemic. In Indianapolis, Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett recently launched a comprehensive criminal justice reform effort that includes as a key centerpiece ensuring victims of addiction are diverted from jails, when appropriate, into treatment programs. This is just one Indiana community where leaders across the aisle are taking steps to tackle opioids.
Leaders at both the state and local level — and in urban and rural communities — should capitalize on this headway and redouble their own efforts to tackle our state’s opioid crisis. The stakes of addressing the problem couldn’t be greater.
A report released last year with support from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation showed that more than 5 percent of Hoosiers have abused prescription drugs and nearly 1,000 Hoosiers reported having used heroin within the last month. The number of drug overdose deaths overtook the number of motor vehicle deaths in Indiana as of 2008, and our state ranked 15th nationally for drug overdose deaths in 2014. In St. Joseph County alone, there were 36 overdose deaths in 2014, resulting in a death rate of 13.5 per 100,000 people.
The challenge affects all of us, from the nearly 700 babies born annually with effects of addiction to the child welfare, criminal justice and healthcare systems that are strained under the burden of the addiction crisis.
State and local leaders have been pushing each year to chip away at the problem, from sweeping efforts such as drug task forces to targeted community initiatives. They can build upon this progress by focusing intently on three priorities.
First, we must build awareness — especially in schools — of the danger of opioids and the devastating effects of abusing them. Our state lacks a comprehensive approach to teaching substance-abuse prevention in K-12 schools. By bolstering support for evidence-based programming, we can help keep the next generation of Hoosiers from falling victim to opioid abuse.
We also must ensure that when someone suffering from opioid use disorder overdoses, we can minimize the negative health impacts. Indiana lawmakers have taken steps in recent years to make the life-saving drug naloxone more accessible. Public health experts also recommend increasing access to other “harm reduction” services, like needle-exchange programs and testing for HIV and other infectious diseases that result from drug use.
Finally, Indiana desperately needs more trained professionals equipped to treat substance abuse, including psychiatrists and primary care doctors. We must make it a priority to increase the number of such providers, as well as create easier access to medication-assisted treatment. In the meantime, we should better engineer our patient referral methods to maximize existing resources, minimize appointment waiting times and provide immediate treatment to those who are ready to get on the path to recovery.
There’s strong momentum for making Indiana a national leader in addressing the opioid crisis. We should make 2017 the year to achieve unparalleled headway in reducing overdose deaths and curbing the addiction challenge in our state. The health of those suffering from opioid use disorder — and the well-being of all Hoosiers — depends on it.
Claire Fiddian-Green is president and CEO of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, whose mission is to advance the vitality of Indianapolis and the well-being of its people.