Editorial: A healthy stance on heroin
"People can't really ignore it anymore. There's a lot of personal experience in it now. It's very real."
That's where we are in the heroin epidemic in York County. Dr. Matt Howie said those words during a meeting Wednesday between the York County Heroin Task Force and Fred Brason, executive director of Project Lazarus in North Carolina.
Howie, medical director of the York City Health Bureau, compared the treatment of addiction to the way discussion of domestic violence has come into the open, allowing people to talk about their personal experiences without fearing an immediate, harsh judgment.
And, in the same way that those helping victims of domestic violence have turned to the community for understanding and support, those who help the ever-growing number of people addicted to opioids and other drugs are turning to the community for help.
One thing agreed on at the conference: York County needs an executive director for health to oversee the complicated issues of addiction and treatment.
"What we're hoping for is to develop a long-term, sustainable strategy to combat this issue," chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday, who co-chairs the York County Heroin Task Force, said. "The executive director would lead that effort. We want to formalize the effort."
That's an expansion of county government that we could get behind.
The heroin epidemic is the latest health crisis to hit York County hard. Last year, 64 people in York County died from heroin-related overdose, more than the 62 who died in 2014.
That number could have been much higher were it not for the naloxone all first responders now carry with them. Between April 2015, when the naloxone kits became standard issue for all police officers, and the end of the year, 90 people received the treatment for overdoses, according to the York County Coroner's Office.
A county health director would help coordinate efforts to fight the disease of addiction, from getting naloxone to those most likely to encounter addicts who are overdosing to opening more beds in treatment facilities to spreading the education that will help keep people off the path to addiction in the first place.
We know the county doesn't have money to spare, which is why the leaders who gathered Wednesday are first getting funding to pay the new executive director through grants from businesses, the state and others.
At the same time, Gov. Tom Wolf and President Barack Obama are discussing getting more funding — up to $46 million for Pennsylvania — for a three-pronged effort to educate communities, arrest dealers and rehabilitate addicts.
Having a central person to coordinate efforts in York County, an area hit hard by the epidemic, should fall under that plan.
Could the new position bring about a county health department? That's a possibility that needs to be considered.
Back in 2007, the county discussed and turned down a proposal for a department dedicated to the health of the county. At that time, the proposal called for 72 employees and a budget of $8.28 million, with the department projected to be able to cover its own budget within three years through fees and grants and absorbing the city health department.
At this point, that's more than York County needs. But having one central person charged with coordinating efforts for the health of the residents of the county is a solid first step.