Drug Overdose Task Force Making Progress

Every year, I have the opportunity to address the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce to update its members on what is happening in Westmoreland County and in county government. It was the perfect forum to provide an update on the critical work of the Drug Overdose Task Force I am co-chairing. I wanted to share my full address with you here…

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I am especially excited to be here this afternoon. In reflecting back on my previous addresses during this event, I remembered I spoke about two very important topics for you and for our county. In 2012, it was the need for transportation improvements and last year I explained the creation of the countywide Land Bank. Today, transportation funding statewide will be higher than ever, and our Land Bank is partnering with 11 communities to already own 12 nuisance properties, including the acquisition and demolition of the former Monsour Hospital.

I never realized how important this event is. Clearly, whatever we talk about here comes true!

This year’s topic, however, is much more serious. In fact, it’s life or death.

It’s no secret that Westmoreland County, like most of our country, has a very serious drug abuse, and drug overdose, problem. This epidemic really is a public health crisis that has a profound impact on our families, our communities and our businesses. It should matter to all of us. And I felt it important to update you all on the work of the county’s Drug Overdose Task Force with my hope that, like transportation funding and our Land Bank, we’ll soon be celebrating the Task Force’s success in improving our quality of life in Westmoreland County.

We are about a year-and-a half into our work. And honestly, it’s just begun. It’s a multi-year project to identify the root causes and find solutions that will reduce the number of overdose deaths in our county. The goal is to reduce deaths by 25 percent by the year 2019. That may sound modest until you consider that we ended 2014 with likely another record year for drug overdose deaths. (It could be as high as 88 as we await final test results from the Coroner). That number has been rising steadily since 2002.

We learned early on in our work that it’s not just young people who are dying in record numbers. It’s mostly people like me – the average victim is a 41 year old man, with seemingly every bit of knowledge about the dangers. Second, we learned that it’s not just heroin. More often it’s prescription drugs. And finally, we know this crisis is not confined to the “bad areas” of the county. The problem is profound throughout our more affluent suburban areas, right along the Route 30 Corridor from North Huntingdon to Ligonier.

This complex problem didn’t happen overnight, nor will it be solved overnight, but we’ve done some important work in the past year-and-a-half. Work that will help us meet our long-term goals, work that will strengthen our communities, and work that will ultimately save lives.

Probably the simplest way to detail our work is by the committees that were established to meet our objectives. And this is just some the highlights.

First, the Criminal Justice Committee. The top priorities remain diversion, drug court and re-entry. We’re analyzing data on recidivism – knowing now that more than 30 percent of the county jail is made up “repeat customers” – to determine ways to keep these offenders from coming back again. Also, the county received a planning grant to begin implementing a specialized Drug Court – something I’ve been advocating for years – to better focus the courts’ efforts on the problem. We expect a pilot program to begin in late spring.

Second, the Advocacy Committee. This group led the public effort locally to encourage the state’s passage of the Good Samaritan legislation to encourage first responders and law enforcement personnel to carry and administer naloxone – a medicine that can counteract an overdose. Our county Park Police, as well as Sheriffs deputies, will be carrying naloxone. We’ve also pushed hard for the Prescription Drug Monitoring Bill, which will start holding prescribers more accountable.

The Healthcare Committee recently met with officials from Project Lazarus, an organization that has dramatically reduced overdose deaths throughout North Carolina by taking a holistic public health approach to the problem, using community forms, education and coalition building. There was a great story in the newspaper last month about the success this group has had. We can learn a lot from them.

The Public Outreach and Education Committee has produced on-line PSA’s that are on YouTube and other social media, and will be airing on local television this year. The quality is professional – and the message is very powerful.

And lastly, the Treatment Committee is studying “best practices” on appropriate treatment methodologies, with a focus on assessment and outpatient detox and rehab. They are also looking at strategies to engage family and recovering addicts in the treatment process, as this is so vital to treatment success.

I am also planning to take the lessons we are learning, and the challenges we are facing, to Governor-Elect Tom Wolf, as part of my role in the new administration’s transition team. I’m honored to have been invited to serve on the group developing Drug and Alcohol policy. In fact, we’re meeting in Harrisburg tomorrow. So you still have some time today to give me your ideas.

I’m really just scratching the surface of the work of the Overdose Task Force and all that’s happening. You can learn more about this and all of our work on a new website we created www.getinwestmoreland.org which is the perfect way to follow along on our progress.

Thank you for all that you do for Westmoreland County. I hope you all will join in helping to stop this epidemic.