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Heroin Task Force gets new name, director
York County’s Heroin Task Force is now the York Regional Opiate Collaborative.
The new name and a new director were announced Wednesday at the York County Administrative Center in the commissioners meeting room before a group of state and local officials. Dr. Matthew Howie, currently the medical director of the York City Bureau of Health, will be the executive director of the group.
In the next two weeks, he said, he’ll learn more about the task force and start to gather local data, which he said is important to measure before moving forward. He wants to start tracking how many people try to access treatment, actually get treatment and are successful in combating their addiction.
“With heroin, we can get overdose deaths for the state, and they can be tracked, but we need to get that similar level of data for the county,” Howie said.
The task force’s new focus, he said, might also include further integrating of primary and behavioral health care delivered outside of traditional medical practices and facilitating the link between already existing support organizations and treatment centers.
“Health care has to extend beyond that,” Howie said. “I think the heroin epidemic has shown that the medical community is not the end all, be all.”
Like other counties throughout the state and nation, Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Gary Tennis said, York is reeling from overdose deaths. The task force’s mission to combat the opioid abuse epidemic, he said, should be a model for the rest of the commonwealth.
“We have so far to go,” Tennis said. “We have too many people dying, but you could not ask for more from your leaders.”
State Sen. Scott Wagner said much of the county’s drug flow can be attributed to York’s southern neighbor, Baltimore, which has the highest per capita heroin addiction rate in the nation. Despite its proximity, he said, the county is working hard to curb and end the epidemic. From 2014 to 2015, he said, York County saw a 16 percent decrease in overdose deaths while surrounding counties saw increases.
In the last two years, the task force has spearheaded the distribution of naloxone to first responders, helped synchronize treatment services and organized prescription drug drop-offs.
An increase in heroin deaths over the last few years is often attributed to the free flow of prescription pain medication, which can be a gateway to stronger, illegal drugs such as heroin.
Local law enforcement started carrying naloxone in the spring of 2015. Since the task force pushed for first responders to carry the overdose-reversal drug, 296 deaths were prevented in York County. The last drug drop-off took 2 tons of prescription opioids out of medicine cabinets and out of the hands of those at risk of overdosing.
“It’s not enough to save a person’s life,” Tennis said, while stressing the importance of linking vulnerable residents with treatment options. “They will go out and use again and they will die.”
Howie, who also will serve in an advisory position to the county commissioners, said he stepped down from primary care in September in preparation to take on the executive director position.
The public health advocate also is the medical director of the York City Bureau of Health, where he’ll continue to devote about one quarter of his work week. Half of Howie's week will be spent at WellSpan York Hospital, where the trained physician teaches the hospital’s residency students.
The quarter-time appointment as the task force’s executive director comes with $100,000 a year in grant funding over the next three years, which Howie said will go to his salary but also to “logistics” and implementing the next steps for the task force.
The position is paid for by local donations already pledged and in-kind contributions and will be housed in the York County Human Services Building at 100 W. Market St. in York City. Donors include WellSpan Health, the York County Bar Association, York County, the Memorial Health Fund and an anonymous donor.