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City of Austin considers opioid strategies

Tuesday, September 4, 2018 by Jack Craver

The city of Austin is aiming to develop a coordinated effort with Travis County, law enforcement and health agencies to fight opioid addiction.

An Aug. 30 memo to City Council from Stephanie Hayden, director of the Austin Department of Health and Human Services, suggests something of an “all of the above” approach to preventing drug abuse, reducing overdoses and treating addiction.

The memo is the product of a July 18 meeting that city officials convened along with other “key community agencies and partners” to discuss strategies. That meeting was prompted by a resolution Council passed in May calling on city staff to identify potential programs – and funding sources – to fight opioid abuse. The resolution emphasized support for treatment over prosecution, the use of medication-assisted treatment, public education, and better gathering and sharing of data on drug use between public agencies and health care providers.

Hayden’s memo proposes a public awareness campaign to further educate the public on the risks of opioid addiction as well as how to safely dispose of unused medication.

The memo also stresses the importance of continuing street-level intervention, such as through the city’s Homeless Outreach Street Team, which involves police officers, social workers and emergency medical service workers who engage directly with homeless people and try to direct them to treatment and housing services.

The memo does not address one point raised in the Council resolution: the ongoing litigation against major drug manufacturers for their role in the opioid crisis. In December the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to authorize the county joining dozens of other cities, counties and states in suing. The Council resolution asks the city manager to consider whether the city should join the lawsuit.

Compared to the rest of the country, opioid abuse is not that bad in the Austin area or in Texas. The Austin Chronicle recently reported that Texas experienced an age-adjusted opioid overdose mortality rate of 4.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016, compared to 13.3 nationally and 43.4 in West Virginia. It’s a tragic problem nevertheless: 590 people in Travis County died due to opioid overdoses between 2006 and 2016.

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

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