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Task force making gains against heroin abuse in York County
Heroin addiction, like a cancer, spreads throughout society and becomes entangled with social issues from crime to mental illness to family crises — even affecting how some elderly people augment their fixed incomes.
"I've talked to seniors in our community who ran out of money and started selling their (opiate-based) prescription pills," chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday said. "The majority of property crime we see is a derivative of drug abuse. A tremendous amount of the violent crime we see is a derivative of drug abuse."
Sunday, who with York County Coroner Pam Gay co-chairs the York County Heroin Task Force, said the insidious reach of opioid addiction requires it be battled on multiple front lines simultaneously.
"It's all connected," he said. "It is (about) attacking the problem from all fronts. One component to this issue isn't going to stop the problem. Combining all our resources together is the only way, I believe, we can make an impact."
And that's how the York County Heroin Task Force — which also includes doctors, drug-treatment providers, legislators, police and EMTs — plans to continue fighting the county's heroin epidemic, according to Sunday and Gay.
Those efforts include educating the public, working to improve treatment services in the county, making sure police have the tools they need to go after suppliers, and working with legislators to change and update state laws, they said.
Byrnes partnership: "We are currently working on developing a partnership with the Byrnes Health Education Center to put together a presentation to give to middle school-age students on the dangers of heroin and prescription pill use," Sunday said. "We wanted to turn to an organization ... that has a proven track record for providing high-quality educational programs regarding health and drug abuse."
Gay said the coroner's office already goes out to schools to speak about the dangers of drugs, but the joint program with the Byrnes Health Education Center would be "customized for the problem that exists in our community."
The coroner said it's important to reach out to school-age children before they begin experimenting with drugs, to impress upon them how hard it is to recover from heroin addiction and how easy it can be to relapse.
The goal, Gay said, is for the program to be free to all York County school districts. At this point, there is discussion about funding it with drug-forfeiture money, according to Sunday.
"I think that's an excellent use of drug dealers' profits — to take that money and educate kids ... so children learn not to buy that poison," he said. "Our goal is to reach as many kids as we can."
Mobile pill drop-off: Municipalities across the county, spurred by the task force, have added more prescription pill drop-off boxes, according to Sunday.
"I believe every police department in York County, except one, has a (drop-off box). They are regularly being filled up, and the pills are being destroyed," he said. "We've got to get rid of those unused opiate-based pills. About 80 percent of all heroin addicts start by abusing prescription pain killers."
And York County has now created a mobile prescription pill drop-off box "for rural areas that don't have access" to one of the stationary locations, Sunday said.
The county advertises where the mobile drop-off will be stationed — usually a fire hall, sometimes a senior center — and it is dropped off for four hours, he said.
"We went down to Delta (recently) and in a four-hour period we collected more than a hundred pounds of pills," Sunday said.
Improving treatment: Gay said the task force also has been focusing on improving treatment options in York County for opioid addicts, including increasing the number of patients York County's sole methadone clinic can handle and increasing the number of beds available at in-patient residential facilities.
A new methadone clinic is expected to open in Hanover, officials said. And that should translate into a reduction in wait time for addicts seeking help, according to Sunday.
Steve Warren, county administrator for mental health and drug and alcohol programs, has been "very proactive in working with us to identify treatment gaps, and we've been working with legislators and county commissioners (to find more funding)," Sunday said.
Warren, who also is a member of the county's heroin task force, confirmed that White Deer Run residential treatment center in Springettsbury Township is working with the county's engineer to hopefully expand its facility. Currently, White Deer Run has seven detox beds and 16 rehab beds, he said.
More beds: The plan is to potentially increase those numbers to 21 detox beds and "some additional" rehab beds, according to Warren, who said that while White Deer Run treats all kinds of addiction, a high percentage of its patients are opiate-addicted.
"The system tries to get the individual (addict) in as quickly as possible," he said. "Unfortunately, there's a (treatment) bed shortage across the state."
The county's only methadone clinic, also in Springettsbury Township, can now accept 70 more patients than it could just six months ago, according to Warren. It previously was licensed to serve 210 patients, and is now licensed to serve up to 280, he said.
Warren credited officials who serve on the task force with helping expedite that, saying officials were "very vocal" in saying the clinic needed immediate relief.
"I think the task force's efforts have been phenomenal," Warren said. "It's really brought a great deal of public awareness to the problem. In many ways our program was fighting a losing battle because there was such a demand for services. Now the community ... is beginning to realize this affects people from all walks of life."
The county has also applied for grant money to battle the heroin epidemic, in part to create a position within the York-Adams Drug and Alcohol Commission that would have someone on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to go to local hospitals and immediately connect with overdose victims who survived, Warren said.
That person could do an immediate assessment and help addicts find immediate placement, he said — before the addict simply walks out and starts using again.
State efforts: Gay and Sunday said they are waiting for the state's prescription pill database to be set up. Lawmakers approved the concept but didn't fully fund it, according to Gay, who said she's hoping the upcoming state budget will address that. The database would give pharmacists a way to determine if customers had multiple narcotics prescriptions filled at different pharmacies.
"My understanding is it's in the works," she said of state funding.
Gay cautioned that while the program is expected to eventually reduce the number of heroin and opiate deaths, it will likely cause heroin deaths to temporarily increase in the short term. The coroner said that's because some people addicted to opioid pills will move to heroin when they find they can no longer get the number of pills they need.
"States that have had the program in place for a few years are saying those deaths have leveled off or decreased," she said, adding Pennsylvania is one of the few states that doesn't already use a working prescription pill database.
And the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the state's General Assembly, will hold a public hearing Aug. 18 in York to discuss heroin and opioid treatment, according to its website.
Education still key: Members of the York County Heroin Task Force continue to conduct town-hall meetings at locations across York County, according to Sunday.
They give presentations at schools, churches and community groups, and they spread educational messages via Facebook and Twitter, he said.
Task force members were vocal supporters of getting Narcan, the heroin antidote, into the hands of police officers and other first responders, Gay and Sunday said.
"I think things have improved in York," Gay said.
"We at the task force have become very effective at thinking outside the box," Sunday said. "I am very hopeful all of these efforts will make lives better, keep families intact and hopefully reduce crime in York County as a whole.
"Our goal is to put a foundation in place that will allow us to utilize all the different components to solving this problem ... so we can effect change — actual long-term change — for this community," Sunday said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com.