Attorney General unveils new plan to battle opioid addiction epidemic

Kara Odom Walker

WILMINGTON — “Addiction is the public health crisis of our generation.”

The words, spoken by Health and Social Services Secretary Kara Odom Walker Wednesday, indicate how many state officials have come to view the opioid epidemic. Opioid addiction has erupted nationwide in recent years, and Delaware is no exception: According to the state, 308 people died in Delaware from overdoses in 2016, up from 222 two years before.

Dr. Walker was among those who spoke at a Department of Justice news conference highlighting recommendations for improving treatment. Created based on a study commissioned by the agency, the recommendations are aimed at reducing an overdose rate officials say is higher than the national average.

The Department of Justice proposal includes policy items directed toward lawmakers, including some that carry monetary costs.

“It is time for Delaware to spend money on this problem in a way that reflects the fact that the opioid epidemic is killing Delawareans at a record rate,” Attorney General Matt Denn said. “It is our No. 1 cause of accidental death.”

Matt Denn

He is hoping decision-makers from the former Delaware Economic Development Office (which recently has its structure reformed) will approve a $4 million allocation to attract additional substance-abuse treatment facilities. The centers are necessary to provide both residential and outpatient care, Mr. Denn said.

The money would come from the fund used to incentivize companies to settle or stay in Delaware, and its use could create jobs in the substance-abuse treatment field.

Another item carrying a significant cost is a proposal to better coordinate steps by entities in the field, with a price tag of $675,000.

Although not given a specific cost, one recommendation calls for providing funding for law enforcement to purchase naloxone, a medication that can counteract the effects of opioids.

About half of the state’s law enforcement agencies have the medication, and there are documented instances of it saving lives in Delaware.

Finding money may be difficult for lawmakers, who were tasked with closing a budget gap of nearly $400 million earlier this year, but Mr. Denn believes it is of the utmost priority.

“People are dying, and there needs to be focus and urgency about our work,” he said.

The agency is also calling for expanding the state’s prescription-monitoring programs, creating a recovery high school to help former addicts, utilizing involuntary treatment for drug addicts and broadening health insurance plans to cover treatment methods other than opioids.

People are slipping through gaps in treatment, Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay said. According to an analysis conducted by Hornby Zeller Associates at the request of the Department of Justice, about 11,000 Delawareans are in need of treatment, but only 6,000 are receiving it.

Government officials in recent years, both in Delaware and around the United States, have begun responding to addiction as a disease that needs treating rather than a criminal act that needs to be punished. Since 2015, Delaware has created new, more restrictive guidelines for opioid dispensation, increased monitoring efforts, made treatment more accessible and approved the use of naloxone.

Those steps are good, officials said, but they are only a start.

The number of people suffering from addiction can be staggering, but those numbers represent more than just data — they’re people.

“Each of those statistics are a Greg, are a Tyler, are a Matt … and we don’t want to forget that, and that is the urgency,” Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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