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Growing opioid abuse crisis draws push for budget requests, partnerships

Friday, May 25, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Looking to head off a public health issue that was repeatedly referred to as a growing crisis, City Council voted Thursday to take the first steps to combat an increase in deaths and abuse of the opioid family of drugs and pharmaceuticals.

The unanimous vote came after members of Austin’s music and artistic community reported a dramatic increase in demand for drug treatment related to opioids, including heroin use and abuse of painkillers derived from opium such as OxyContin.

The clearest call for action came earlier this year from leaders of the SIMS Foundation nonprofit, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment to Austin musicians, after their demand for drug counseling spiked in the second half of 2017. One-third of SIMS’ drug treatment cases are related to opioid abuse.

“This trend was initially identified by our creative community, which we see as an early trendsetter in so many different ways,” Mayor Steve Adler said at a press conference Thursday morning prior to the vote.

“We know artists are often exposed to the harmful influences of substance abuse and behavioral health conditions. They are kind of our canary in a coal mine. SIMS is an organization that raised the flag as it began to see an increased need for Austin to step up concerning opioids, as have so many other communities. This is a rapidly expanding health emergency that we need to get out in front of.”

The resolution directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to explore data and best strategies related to combating opioid addiction in cities where it is currently more of a chronic and destructive health and public safety issue than it is in Austin. Part of that directive would see the city partner with community organizations such as Central Health to improve existing treatments while also working to implement new options.

Among the recommended steps are exploring increased epidemiological surveillance and monitoring, improved public education and health promotion, exploring evidence-based prevention and harm reduction initiatives, possible criminal justice diversion programs, increasing funding for treatment and recovery options, and making kits containing the opioid blocker naloxone more available to treat overdoses.

There is no stated deadline for Cronk’s report but the resolution calls for delivery in time for any related budget requests to be included in the Fiscal Year 2018-19 budget, which will be determined through August and approved in September.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said while Austin’s opioid situation isn’t as dire as that seen in many other cities, the upward trend of abuse and related health and safety issues make it important to commit budget dollars and other resources to the problem quickly.

According to data from Travis County, the Austin area has experienced 1,398 drug overdose deaths since 2006, with 590 of those attributed to opioid abuse.

“This is an emergency and a growing epidemic nationally,” she said. “We need to take the bull by the horns to see what we can do, and we do need additional targeted funding requests to see what we can do about this crisis.”

Travis County is among a growing number of local governments who have filed lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of opioid drugs because of the law enforcement and health care costs associated with abuse of those pharmaceuticals. The county filed its case earlier this year and is seeking $100 million in damages.

Prior to the vote, Council Member Greg Casar said he wants the city to explore joining the Travis County suit or others already filed by area governments and organizations.

Heather Alden, executive director of the SIMS Foundation, said local groups such as Central Health, the ALL ATX nonprofit and concert promoter C3 Presents have stepped up their giving and resource availability to help provide long-term, comprehensive drug treatment rather than 30-day programs that are less effective.

“The opioids crisis is hitting Austin’s treasured music community, and SIMS is ready to collaborate with the city of Austin and community partners on all possible solutions,” she said. “We have a full-service array ready to go and we just need help from the city and the community to fund that. This is a move that’s good for Austin musicians, will save lives and will ripple out into the greater community when they have the ambassadors who are getting the treatment they need and telling the community about that care.”

Photo by K-State Research and Extension made available through a Creative Commons license.

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