Editor’s note: This is another in an occasional series about the impact of new laws on Hoosiers.
By Abrahm Hurt
INDIANAPOLIS — While Indiana has seen its number of opioid treatment centers increase in recent years, the number of opioid-related deaths continue to rise across the state.
In 2016, almost 800 people died of opioid overdoses in Indiana, which was nearly a 50 percent increase from 2015.
Initial estimates suggest that 2017 was even worse. A recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control found that opioid overdoses increased by 30 percent across the United States, 70 percent in the Midwest and 30 percent in Indiana from July 2016 to September 2017.
The state is not winning against the opioid epidemic, said Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis.
“We have all these pilot programs that we hope we’re going to amplify them and ripple them out, but overdoses are not cresting,” Merrit said. “They’re continuing to increase. Overdose deaths are still happening. Babies are still being born dependent, neonatal absence syndrome babies are still being born.”
Dr. Claudie Jimenez, an addiction medicine specialist and area medical director for CleanSlate addiction treatment centers, said the state has been serious about providing access to more patients but more is needed.
“I think we can always use more facilities and more access to care for these patients,” she said. “We’re seeing phenomenal growth because our patients need care and there’s room for more facilities, there’s room for more access to counseling and there’s just a huge, huge need for more care for the patients.”
Getting patients into treatment is the most important step she said. Once patients are in treatment, they’re able to stabilize their brains, and they get better, and they get into recovery and they start leading normal lives.
This past year, the Indiana General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1007 which will increase the number of opioid treatment facilities in the state to 27 from 18 in the next three years.
The legislature also passed bills that increase the criminal penalties for drug dealers that deal drugs which result in death, expand the system that monitors opioid prescriptions and building data collected from local coroners on overdose deaths.
Senate Enrolled Act 221, requires doctors to have access to INSPECT, a website to allow practitioners to check a patient’s controlled substance prescription history.
Merritt, who has been heading legislation to combat the epidemic for three years now, said the first step was educating people that the state was in an epidemic.
“In the very beginning we started out with understanding what our tools were, what our equipment was, what our weapons were to slay the dragon, knowing how many doctors we had, how many social workers we have and how many nurses we have,” he said. “And we found we don’t have enough.”
From 2006 to 2016 the number of opioid-related deaths increased from 170 to 785, a nearly 400 percent increase, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Merritt said he became involved in the issue when a neighbor died of an overdose the next street over and when EMTs asked him why they couldn’t have Narcan on their ambulances.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a medication, which reverses the effects of opioids. When injected, it works within five minutes, the individual will “wake up, ” allowing 30 to 60 minutes to seek medical attention.
In 2016, Merrit authored legislation allowing Indiana pharmacies to sell Naloxone over-the-counter.
While the state is not winning against the opioid epidemic, Merritt said the state is in a place where it is preparing to win. He said the next big question that needs to be asked what is the next weapon that the state is going to use to kill the epidemic?
“I think prevention and people having knowledge, moms and dads having knowledge, about checking their purse or their wallet for money that’s missing, a spoon in the drawer of their kitchen, foil out of the drawer in the kitchen, kids that they don’t know that are around the house with their kids and just different changes in behavior in your children,” he said.
Indiana also received another $10.9 million from the Opioid State Targeted Response grant to help fund evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts at the state level.
The grant is the result of the federal 21st Century Cures Act. In 2017 Indiana received the same amount of funding which was put towards expanding residential treatment centers, anti-stigma campaigns and enhancement of INSPECT.
INSPECT is a website which allows practitioners to check a patient’s controlled substance prescription history.
The money will be spent in many of the same areas again this year but it will also put more toward prevention efforts.
Merrit said his focus during next year’s legislative session will be authoring bills that focus on prevention, particularly in schools.
“One of the reasons I felt like I could lead this effort is because it needs a theme of killing heroin in five years,” he said. “It needs phrases such as, ‘Addiction is an illness; not a character flaw.’ About once a month someone comes to me and they’ve lost a loved one or a friend, and I always tell them to use their grief for good and to help others.”
Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, has led efforts to pass laws to combat opioid addiction. Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com
Abrahm Hurt is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.