Seminar stacks body bags to show toll of substance abuse in Westmoreland County


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Coroner Kenneth Bacha found a dramatic way to illustrate the toll taken by drugs and alcohol in Westmoreland County.

Mr. Bacha had staff members pile up 100 body bags like those used to transport victims of fatal overdoses in front of the lectern where he was speaking.

Each bag stood for one of the 100 victims who died of an accidental overdose in the county during a recent 15-month period, he said.

"Each number represents an individual," Betty Gaul told the 140 community leaders attending an educational session sponsored by the county's Overdose Task Force. "They left behind mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and others who still miss them."

Ms. Gaul is special projects director for Southwest Behavioral Health Management Inc., a consortium formed to oversee mental health contracts for several counties. She was one of a 13 speakers at the Tuesday seminar at Ferrante's Lakeview in Greensburg.

Dirk Matson, the county's human services director, served as moderator. "The overdose epidemic is the most disturbing thing I have found since I started working for Westmoreland County 10 months ago," he told participants.

Mr. Matson presented statistics indicating that deaths linked to drug overdoses was both a regional and a national problem. Overdose numbers were particularly troubling in a multistate area that includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Combine a plentiful, potent and cheap supply of heroin with a dramatic rise in the use of prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and conditions are in place to fuel a rise in drug deaths, he said.

"We are focusing on solutions, not finger-pointing," he told the audience.

Westmoreland County was not alone in facing what speakers referred to as an epidemic, Mr. Matson said. Westmoreland recorded one accidental drug-and-alcohol-related death for every 4,700 people. Allegheny County's number was one for every 4,300 residents; in Washington County it was one death for every 5,200 people.

Mr. Bacha warned that Westmoreland is on its way to another record year in the number of deaths related to accidental overdoses. In 2002 that number was 22, but it had jumped to 78 by 2012. The total already this year is 72, with two of those fatalities happening in the past week. That annual number could hit 100 by Dec. 31, he warned.

Ms. Gaul provided a "root cause analysis" that sought to shine light on the multiple factors and conditions linked to overdose deaths. Her subcommittee took a closer look at the 100 deaths recorded in the county between Jan. 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013.

The vast majority of the deaths -- 71 percent -- happened in the individuals' home, she said. Two-thirds of victims were male and 97 percent were white. More than half of those who died were between ages 41 and 60.

Illegal drugs were the main causes of death among younger victims, those between 15 and 30, while prescription drugs was the major cause in older people.

Those who died of accidental overdoses most often faced multiple other problems, Ms. Gaul said. Sixty-five of the 100 faced legal charges in the county and 58 had been jailed at least once.

Two-thirds of the victims had received medical assistance benefits at some point. Of that group, 61, or 90 percent, had used their public health coverage for mental health, substance abuse or prescription services.

The stigma that accompanies felony convictions related to drug or drug-related crimes makes its hard for recovering addicts to get work, pursue careers and rent apartments, seminar participants were told.

A young woman who identified herself only as "Ashley" drew applause when she said she had been drug-free for seven years.

The daughter of a heroin addict, she began drinking in elementary school and first took the highly addictive opiate OxyContin at age 13. She was "the bad kid that parents told their kids not to hang around with."

Robbing houses to feed her drug habit, she was convicted of multiple felonies by age 20. As a result, jobs and positions at many companies always will remain closed to her, she said.

Tuesday's session drew law enforcement officials, court personnel, medical professionals, school district representatives and members of mental health and drug treatment programs. All three Westmoreland County commissioners attended, pledging support for a multi-pronged effort to attack the overdose problem.

The dual goals of the session were for participants to learn about issues contributing to rising overdose numbers and to develop a plan to cut drug overdose deaths in the county by 25 percent by 2018.

The session was co-sponsored the county's Department of Human Services and the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission. Mr. Matson and Colleen Hughes, executive director of drug and alcohol commission, are co-chairs of the task force.

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Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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