Regional task force on drug addiction nears final report

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Mounting overdose deaths — approaching 300 a year in Allegheny County alone — could be reduced through measures both simple and complex, members of a regional task force said Wednesday as they prepared for a stretch run toward an exhaustive report on the subject.

For instance, if you put the overdose-stopping drug naloxone into more hands, including those of police and even civilians, scores of deaths could be prevented, said some of the 18 members of the Working Group on Addiction: Prevention, Intervention, Treatment and Recovery.

Remind people leaving jail that their tolerance for drugs that their tolerance for drugs is likely low, or better yet sign them up for health insurance and treatment, and lives can be turned around, others added.

It’s all part of “getting out of the dark ages,” said U.S. Attorney David Hickton, who convened the group four months ago and hosted its meeting at his office. “Making distinctions between the illness of addiction and the crime of drug trafficking will make this a safer community, and it’s the right thing to do.”

He urged the 18 members to “sprint to a final report in early September and start acting.”

A preliminary report that was discussed — though not released — at the meeting tentatively called for steps ranging from town meetings, websites and social media, to tougher monitoring of physicians and treatment professionals.

Health systems can educate their doctors on emerging standards for the prescription of potentially addictive pain killers, members said, and can then use electronic records systems to hold them accountable.

Similarly, the region needs to find a way to better educate and monitor treatment providers who prescribe buprenorphine, a drug used to treat addicts. They must make sure that patients are staying off of illicit drugs and unprescribed pills, members said.

Allegheny County associate medical examiner Ken Clark said that of the 1,138 deaths his office investigated in 2012, just over one quarter were drug overdoses.

Nearly half of those involved prescription drugs.

He said the overdose victims typically fell in either the 25-34 age range or the early 50s.

“I’ve been seeing a large wave of people over 50 coming in for the first time” for drug rehabilitation, added Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, and a co-chair of the group. He said some appear to have become hooked on pain medication and then moved on to heroin when prescriptions ran out and street pills proved too expensive.

Better data on the demographics of addiction and overdose could help both health care and law enforcement to address the problem, members agreed.

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord.

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord

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