The substance abuse epidemic in Grant County is an uphill battle, but the county is seeing some wins as health care professionals, mental health specialists and law enforcement continue to join forces.

Opioid overdose numbers continue to rise in Grant County, Marion General Hospital officials reported at a meeting of the Grant County Substance Abuse Task Force Friday.

An estimated 78 opioid overdoses were diagnosed by MGH in 2018, up from 69 in 2017, 51 in 2016 and 43 in 2015.

Overdoses continue to kill Grant County residents, too. Seven people, their ages ranging from 22 to 64, died of overdoses in the first three months of 2018, data from Grant County Coroner Stephen Dorsey shows. That figure is up from five in the first quarter of 2017, although it's not as high as the first quarter of 2015, in which 10 people died of drug overdoses.

Opioids are also also being prescribed at a higher rate per capita in Grant County than the state average. Per state data, 283 opioid prescriptions are dispensed for every 1,000 Grant County residents. Statewide, that number is 214 per 1,000 residents.

This problem persists although MGH's opioid prescription data shows encouraging trends.

“For four years we've been trying very, very, very hard, we've had so much education with our physicians on our prescribing patterns,” said Ann Vermilion, administrative director of medical staff services and community outreach for the hospital.

MGH cut its opioid prescription rates by more than half over the last five years. In 2013, 20.7 percent of emergency department patients were prescribed opioids or other controlled substances, compared to 8.48 percent of patients in the last quarter of 2018.

That earned a round of applause from the drug task force, made up of MGH staff, law enforcement, behavioral health professionals, justice system and corrections staff and members from other community organizations.

But the county's numbers overall are still troubling.

“This is the number when I go to the statehouse that still concerns us. … We need to see how we in Grant County are stacking up so highly when you look at the state regarding the prescription of opioids,” Vermilion said.

Another win celebrated Friday was a dramatic drop in the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) in Grant County. NAS occurs when babies are exposed to drugs in the womb. The babies, after birth, can experience withdrawal if they've become dependent on the drugs.

NAS births at MGH dropped from 24 in 2017 to 11 in 2018.

“That was a big statement for our babies being treated, for our moms,” said Gail Elbert, director of MGH's Family Birthing Center.

Elbert attributed the decrease to early drug screenings for pregnant moms, follow-up screenings and the support and resources they've been able to offer to mothers. “It has been a collaborative effort with the community,” Elbert said.

Task force members also discussed the shifting makeup of drug use in the community. Stimulants, like methamphetamine, are on the upswing while heroin and other opiates are showing signs of decreased use.

The Joint Effort Against Narcotics (JEAN) Team is handling fewer cases involving heroin and prescription drugs and more involving methamphetamine. Similarly, Grant County's drug treatment court data shows stimulants are increasingly the drug of choice for people entering the program, although opioids still top them as the preferred narcotic.

Two Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grants MGH won in 2018 could make a difference in the opioid battle going forward.

Kelley Hochstetler, community education coordinator at MGH, said grant funds are being used to create an online “community asset map” of Grant County's resources for substance abuse and mental health care.

Vermilion said the community needs to know what resources are available when someone says they are ready to get help. 

One woman at Friday's meeting said she lost a step-daughter to complications from drug abuse two years ago. She said she didn't know where to send her to get help. 

One of the grants will also pay for two “peer specialists” who will provide support to people just starting the recovery process. Those specialists will be available to Grant-Blackford Mental Health and Marion General Hospital to help people at any point in their recovery from substance abuse.

“One of the frustrations we have here at the hospital, and I'm sure every one of your agencies can echo this, is sometimes we have people that are in that moment, that are ready to quit, or ready to at least contemplate it, and we hand them a number and say call this number and they'll help you. So our goal is eventually these people are going to be able to come and hand hold and walk with these people,” Hochstetler said.

Another barrier to addicts getting help is the “red tape” of paperwork and health insurance required for admission to mental health facilities, rehabilitation programs and other help. 

The task force is looking for ways to streamline the process of entering recovery programs and moving clients from facility to facility and program to program. 

One of the grants MGH won is a planning grant, which Hochstetler said will be used to identify the gaps as well as the resources in the community and put together a Community Opioid Response, or CORE, team.

One of Grant County's weaknesses is a lack of highly trained mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers with master's degrees, Hochstetler said.

The planning grant will look at workforce development options to try to address that gap.

“(This grant) is about setting the stage for us to implement the (CORE) program across the board,” Hochstetler said.

The Grant County Substance Abuse Task Force only met as a whole once last year.

Vermilion said the group aims to change that in 2019. The next meeting of the task force is set for late May.

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