Opioid epidemic showing signs of turning corner, state drug czar says

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Indiana’s opioid epidemic is showing signs of turning the corner, with visits to emergency rooms for drug overdoses falling and doctors writing fewer prescriptions for opioid painkillers, the state’s drug czar said Friday.

“We are starting to see some encouraging signs,” Jim McClelland, Indiana’s executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement. “We’re going to continue to build on what we’ve been doing and what is working.”

McClelland made his comments at IBJ’s Health Care & Benefits Power Breakfast, taking place Friday morning at the downtown Marriott Indianapolis. McClelland was appointed to his position last year by Gov. Eric Holcomb to coordinate a more effective response to the growing rate of opioid use and deaths.

Opioid prescription rates fell about 10 percent in the first eight months of this year, compared to the same period last year, he said.

“That’s still too high,” he said. “At the end of 2016, we had the 11th highest prescription rate in the country. But it is coming down.”

Statewide, visits to emergency rooms for overdoses have dipped in recent months, he said, although he did not provide figures.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration awarded Indiana more than $25 million to fight the opioid epidemic, largely by expanding access to treatment and recovery services. Of that $25 million, Indiana is getting more than $18 million to finance several initiatives, including two aimed at reducing drug overdose deaths and boosting access to FDA-approved medications for treating opioid abuse.

Already, Indiana has opened 19 treatment centers across the state. The state has been investing millions of dollars in inpatient beds, abuse counseling and other treatments.

Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Health Department, agreed that the state is moving in the right direction. She said the county’s ambulance system has been overwhelmed in recent years by responding to overdose calls. Last year, county ambulances did about 2,150 runs for drug overdoses, compared to just about 500 in 2010.

And while ER visits have fallen, they are still far too high, she said—more than 5,000 last year, up from about 1,500 in 2012.

“This may be the one crisis that’s really going to change the landscape of the country,” Dr. Caine said during the IBJ event's panel discussion. She praised the state’s prevention and treatment efforts, saying they are showing signs of turning things around.

Ryan Kitchell, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of Indiana University Health, also applauded the state for dealing with the problem by rolling out additional treatment centers and cutting down on doctor-shopping.

“I want to applaud Jim (McClelland) and the governor,” he said. “It would have been easy a few years ago to look at this problem and say it’s too big and too complicated. But they tackled it.

Another panelist, Gloria Sachdev, CEO of the Employers’ Forum of Indiana, said the opioid epidemic is constantly a topic of concern among employers across the state, especially as they try to find workers in a tight labor market.

“I’ve had employers tell me they have all these job openings,” she said. “They just want someone to pass the drug test, and they can’t find them. The other thing I hear is, ‘I’m just not even going to test anybody because I don’t want to know.’”

Nationally, the opioid crisis claimed more than 130 Americans' lives per day last year.

McClelland said the state will keep pushing to try to lessen the impact of the opioid epidemic.

“The point here is when you start to see signs of progress, that’s when you need to double down,” he said.

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