IU announces $50M plan to tackle growing opioid epidemic

In the latest move to tackle the state’s burgeoning opioid epidemic, Indiana University plans to spend $50 million to undertake a broad array of addiction research, policy analysis and workforce development programs.

The university announced the wide-ranging plan Tuesday morning, calling it one of the nation’s most comprehensive anti-addictions efforts. IU leaders rolled out the program at the Indiana Statehouse, alongside Gov. Eric Holcomb and Dennis Murphy, CEO of Indiana University Health.

The plan calls for IU to hire 10 faculty members, primarily in public health fields, and to collaborate with state government and large health organizations, which have been battling the opioid epidemic for several years.

“If we can combine our resources, learn from each other, and not duplicate each other’s efforts, we think we can make a difference on this serious problem,” said Fred Cate, IU’s vice president for research.

The goal is to reduce deaths from addiction and ease the burden of drug addiction on Indiana communities.

Indiana is one of four states where the fatal drug overdose rate has more than quadrupled since 1999, IU said. The total cost of drug overdoses in Indiana exceeds $1 billion a year in medical expenses and lost earnings, according to a study last year by IU’s Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.

The crisis “is taking an increasingly severe toll on the health of far too many Hoosiers,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said in a written statement.

In Marion County alone, opioid addiction took the lives of 345 residents last year, more than four times the number of traffic-related deaths. In 2014, Indiana ranked 15th in the nation for the number of deaths due to drug overdose, and Marion County led the state with the highest number of deaths due to drug overdose as well as non-fatal emergency department visits.

Cities and towns across Indiana are spending millions of dollars to deal with the epidemic, from responding to overdoses to prosecuting drug offenders.

Last week, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said the city was preparing a lawsuit against the nation's largest makers and distributors of opioids, saying they were responsible for the spread of addictions.

McRobbie said the university will contribute its “formidable and extensive clinical and research capabilities, large statewide footprint in medicine and health care, and powerful community and industry partnerships.”

The $50 million will be spent in several ways, Cate said. About $15 million will be spent to hire the additional faculty members, pay the first five years of their salaries and lab expenses.

The other $35 million will be spent on projects in three rounds, including gathering and analyzing data on overdoses and measuring the full extent of the problem. Figures on deaths and overdoses are often fragmented, Cate said, and require a fresh approach.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers will be led by IU School of Nursing Dean Robin Newhouse. She said the efforts would range from understanding the basic science of addictions to clinical efforts to say what treatments work best. The initiative also calls for community and workforce development, to help cities and towns that are struggling to deal with labor and economic issues as a growing number of people become addicted to opioids.

“We have a big, complex problem that’s urgent,” she said. “We need to take a comprehensive approach.”

IU will join forces with Indiana University Health, the state’s largest health system, and Eskenazi Health, which treats mostly poor and under-insured people.

The university is calling the initiative “Responding to the Addictions Crisis.” It is the third rollout of IU’s Grand Challenges Program, which seeks to make a major difference in serious issues facing the state.

The two earlier initiatives, rolled out over the past 18 months, will study how Indiana can prepare for the effects of climate change and develop cures for diseases that are now untreatable.

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