EDITORIAL: County responds to opioid challenge

THE STATISTICS ON OPIOID addiction sound like ancient history. What can 2013 or 2015 data tell us? But when officials say that some addicts injure their pets, seek treatment and then use the animal’s painkillers to feed their own habit, that gets a reaction from some of us.

Unless you’re affected by addiction, the grim numbers can be hard to put in perspective–four opioid deaths in the county for the first half of last year, 406 hospitalizations for overdoses, according to the state. It helps to hear something out of the ordinary to remind us of the grip these drugs have on addicted people and the community.

Local officials appreciate the need to respond to the growth in opioid addiction here. Matt Murell, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, has put together a committee headed by county Director of Community Services Michael Cole. The group has just begun to explore ways organizations in the county can cooperate and how they can reach across the Hudson River to Greene County.

A state Department of Health map shows where the hospitalization rates for opioid related cases in the state. Outside of the New York City metropolitan area, the rates are the highest in the Mid-Hudson Valley, starting with Columbia and Greene counties and spreading south. All but one of those six counties are in the 19th Congressional District.

Why is that important? Because our congressman, John Faso, is working with Republican colleagues in the House to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and replace it with some form of health insurance program that has yet to be explained, let alone enacted. Mr. Faso has urged that the ACA, also called Obamacare, not be repealed before a replacement is ready, but others in Congress want ditch it quickly and, if they are successful, thousands of people nationwide with addictions could lose health insurance or Medicaid coverage for drug addiction treatment.

Treatment doesn’t always work. It takes multiple stays in a rehab program for most people addicted to opioids to stay clean for a prolonged period. But there’s no miracle drug to cure the disease of opioid addiction, although some substances can help. So if the federal government lacks the political will to shoulder a large share of the burden of addiction treatment, the costs will fall on state and local authorities and local taxpayers for treatment, prison or burial. That’s neither fair nor practical.

The county’s aspirations for cross-river cooperation won’t be easy to achieve. Columbia and Greene counties might as well have and ocean between them, not a river, judging from how little each connects with the other. Columbia-Greene Community College is a notable exception. But it will require sustained effort by politicians and caregivers to address addiction together.

Among the subjects discussed at the last Columbia County opioid addiction committee meeting was the lack of an existing plan for successfully fighting the spread of addiction in a rural setting. But the outlines of strategies were suggested in calls for a multi-pronged approach that includes treatment, support, education and law enforcement. Sheriff David Bartlett has been actively involved, acknowledging that most of the people held in the county jail are addicted to something.

After last week’s story we got a few messages of concern that the discussions at the recent committee meeting didn’t include the remarkable program of the Village of Chatham Police Department called Chatham Cares 4U (CC4U). Last week, Chatham Chief Peter Volkmann filed a report with the Village Board saying that CC4U has found treatment beds for 70 addicts so far.

The program, started last summer, allows those not wanted for a crime to come to the police station, ask for help to break their addiction, turn over any drugs or paraphernalia they have without fear of arrest and have a police officer find them a treatment facility. As soon as the officer locates a treatment bed he or she drives the addicted person to the treatment facility. Community volunteers and regional services also help in this effort.

CC4U makes inroads in one part of the opioid addiction puzzle. The county committee is aware of Chatham’s efforts and CC4U should be part of the committee. The county needs to include this and any other innovative programs among the tools it’s assembling to tackle opioid addiction here.

The best chance we have to reduce opioid addiction lies in openness and inclusion, with each level of government, from village to Congress doing its fair share.

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