OP-ED: First and foremost, Illinois public officials – legislators and the governor alike – must recognize that the Illinois heroin crisis is a public health crisis.
For that reason, we applaud lawmakers of the Illinois House Heroin Crisis Task Force for approaching and taking testimony from Winnebago County public health stakeholders at its public hearing held in Rockford on July 7.
Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, which has served northern Illinois since 1981 by designing and administering programs that connect individuals involved in the criminal justice system with supervised, community-based drug treatment and recovery support, knows from our decades of reaching tens of thousands of individuals across Illinois that drug addiction requires treatment and recovery management. The most effective treatments will vary depending on the type of drug and the characteristics of the individual. Treatment can encompass a combination of behavior therapies, counseling, ancillary services, and medication assistance.
Individuals highly susceptible to overdose include those who have been released from jail, prison, inpatient treatment, or hospitalization. Periods of abstinence lower the body’s tolerance for the drug and greatly elevate the risk of overdose and death. We know, for example, that client education, communication among systems, and intensive case management can literally be life-saving when a person with opiate addiction is released. We can—and have—prevented tragedies by implementing communication alerts, intervention processes, and vigilant case management at these critical junctures of risk.
In addition to such interventions, other advances include the use of FDA-approved medications, provided in conjunction with clinical therapy in order to prevent overdose and boost recovery.
Approved medications include methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. There are various brand names for these medications and combinations of them, including but not limited to Suboxone, which is a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone; and Vivitrol, Revia, and Depade, which are different forms of naltrexone.
In the Winnebago County Drug Court, for example, TASC and our partners have witnessed the effectiveness of Vivitrol, which reduces opioid cravings and prevents relapse by blocking the opioid receptors. In this particular program, clients receive Vivitrol along with treatment and TASC case management. Since this program was initiated – specifically for drug court clients with opiate addictions – client overdoses or hospitalizations have dropped to zero.
Despite TASC’s own success with Vivitrol, the broader heroin risk remains ever present in Winnebago County.
Several weeks ago, the Winnebago County Coroner reported that 18 of the 42 overdose deaths in Winnebago County so far this year were heroin-related.
By adopting a public health-centered strategy that includes FDA-approved medications, such as Vivitrol, the State of Illinois can begin to turn the tide in the heroin epidemic tragedy. But if the public health approach is ignored by lawmakers and the governor, the heroin scourge will continue to swamp communities.
Bridget Kiely, BA, CADC, CCJAP
Board Registered Interventionist
Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities Administrator