Opioid report ‘a road map’ to combat crisis


DOVER — For the many Delawareans who have become all too familiar with the state’s substance abuse and mental health resources over the past few years, it’s not news the state could do more. Officials have expanded treatment and begun viewing addiction as a disease rather than a crime, but the state still has too few spots in detox facilities, gaps in care between different sources and many people with drug addiction or mental health issues locked up behind bars.

A new report from a state-created group looking at ways to combat the opioid epidemic that claimed the lives of 345 people in Delaware last year offers a three-year plan, based off feedback from more than 600 people and opinions of experts.

From creating sober-living centers to working with religious groups, the 117 recommendations included in the Behavioral Health Consortium’s findings seek to put a significant dent in what many have called a crisis.

“It affects all of us every day in ways that most of us aren’t even aware,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said, listing off the ways addiction takes its toll: crime, higher cost of health insurance, grieving families.

The report, she said, is “our best shot to get our arms around this monster.”

Created in July, the 25-member group held its first meeting in October and hosted community forums in all three counties in February to help craft a plan for stopping the scourge that is addiction.

Sen. Bethany Hall-Long

The report, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long said, is similar to one developed by the Delaware Cancer Consortium in the early 2000s. That consortium proposed a four-year plan that helped lower the state’s incidence and mortality rates, and officials are hoping this one has a similar impact.

“It really is a road map, it’s a launchpad, and I’m really hoping as all eyes around our country are watching Delaware to become a national leader in this area to address it,” Lt. Gov. Hall-Long, a nurse and the consortium’s chairwoman, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Each recommendation contains a time frame of one, two or three years, although many of the items can be achieved quickly, speakers said.

Some are narrowly focused and relatively easy to accomplish: expanding the state’s needle exchange program, making a medication that can counteract the effects of overdoses more readily available and training correctional officers how to better deal with inmates with addiction or mental health issues.

Others, such better coordinating different treatment services, working with religious organizations to help connect individuals in need to resources and finding employment opportunities for individuals in recovery, are more nebulous.

The cost and difficulty of the items vary as well.

At least one major problem could be addressed soon, with Rep. David Bentz, D-Christiana, planning to introduce legislation that would deal with the lack of coordination between different providers, which can lead to individuals failing to get proper treatment or falling back into the cycle of addiction.

Currently, the state’s largest behavioral health provider is the Department of Correction — an illustration of a model advocates say needs to change. Instead of imprisoning people battling addiction or mental health disorders, the state should ensure they receive care, the report notes.

It also urges policymakers to help erase the stigma around mental health issues and create new education programs centering on addiction and mental health.

Delaware has seen its overdose rate climb, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifying a 40 percent increase in fatal overdoses from 2015 to 2016. Only seven states had a worse age-adjusted overdose rate in 2016, per the CDC.

According to the state, the number of fatal overdoses has grown in at least each of the past five years, with the largest jump from 2015 to 2016.

The report’s recommendations come with a price tag, although the monetary cost is not identified in the findings. Some proposals may stall because of the cost, and legislation creating other programs may fail because dollars are eaten up by anti-addiction measures.

With the General Assembly expected to have nearly $100 million in unanticipated revenue to work with, now appears to be a good time for many of the items called for by the Behavioral Health Consortium. Gov. Carney noted the report’s release comes as legislators begin meeting to craft the budget, with the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement convening this week and the Joint Finance Committee gathering the next two weeks.

The governor’s proposed budget contains more than $20 million for treatment services, which he said lawmakers should build on.

As for how legislators will determine which items they can afford to fund and which may have to get pushed to the side for the time being, Gov. Carney stressed the importance of prioritizing the 117 recommendations.

Treating addiction and mental health needs may be pricey, but it’s worth the investment, speakers said Tuesday.

“There’s no price that you can put on the loss of a loved one,” the governor noted.

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