Officials Address Impact Of Drug Treatment Options

Re-adjusting and adapting to the stark, deadly reality of heroin addiction has been a long and often frustrating process for nearly every sector of Chautauqua County.

But today, nearly three years after angry voices demanded change at the first countywide drug forum in Mayville, the prospect of having both a short- and long-term drug treatment system in the county is seemingly at hand.

UPMC Chautauqua WCA’s recent announcement of a long-term treatment program in Jamestown, and expanded outpatient services at both their Jamestown and Dunkirk clinics, was welcome news for a community anxious for local, reliable treatment options.

A recent push by the state’s Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has also brought several anti-drug initiatives into the law books, including measures to increase access to Narcan, limiting opioid prescriptions from 30 to 7 days, and ongoing prevention education for prescribers.

The question for Chautauqua County, however, is when will these efforts begin to have a noticeable impact here?

The answer is not so clear cut.

In fact, even after UPMC Chautauqua WCA’s long-term treatment program comes to fruition –which is not expected for a year or more–tracking progress may still be challenging.

“It’s very difficult to know if we’ll have less addicts … because in some cases, we just don’t have the data that can tell us exactly how many people are affected,” said Vince Horrigan, county executive.

Indeed, keeping an accurate count of fatal heroin and opioid overdoses remains a struggle in Chautauqua County.

Unlike Erie County, which has a designated medical examiner’s office, Chautauqua County has four coroners appointed by the County Legislature. Since these coroners are not allowed to perform autopsies, bodies that require one are transported to Erie County, which, according to some local officials, potentially adds to confusion and inaccurate data collection. Moreover, coroners often attribute overdose deaths to medical conditions that are brought on or exacerbated by drugs, rather than the drugs themselves.

Christine Schuyler, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the process remains a “complicated, inadequate and inconsistent system.”

“Specific drugs that are found in the deceased individual’s system would need to be identified through toxicology … (but) the death certificate may or may not reflect this,” she said. “The New York State Department of Health had a check box added to death certificates regarding whether or not tobacco use contributed to the death; perhaps at some point, something similar will happen with other substances.”

Horrigan, while acknowledging the lack of data available, said he tries to focus on certain trends to mark progress.

“What I’m looking at is the number of people we’re treating, the number of treatment programs available and whether we have people stuck on waiting lists,” he said. “I want people to get treatment when they need it. (The drug epidemic) is a difficult problem to say ‘we’re just going to solve it.’ Everybody is struggling with this across the state.”

State Sen. Cathy Young similarly said the initiatives taken by the state will not reap instant benefits.

“I’m very hopeful that all the steps that we’re taking makes a big dent in the problem, but it’s going to take time because not all these programs are fully implemented yet,” said Young, R-Olean. “People should feel good about the fact that there are many things that have been put into motion and we are not going to give up or let up. This is a crisis and it needs the attention that it deserves.”

Young said legislation has passed in the Senate addressing more accuracy in tracking fatal overdoses. However, she said, it is unclear when this bill will come to fruition.

Andy O’Brien, director of chemical dependency and mental health services at UPMC Chautauqua WCA, said people shouldn’t be under the impression that drugs will soon disappear once treatment is available locally. In fact, he said, even cities with every available treatment option still have significant drug issues.

“I think there’s been an understandable focus in the community about gaps in service and my concern is as the gaps are closed, people’s expectations might be a little too high,” he said. “Having the health services doesn’t automatically and instantly reduce the incidents of substance abuse. But for those people that are worried about losing loved ones, it provides some sense of comfort that they don’t have to go out and that they’re experts in the area that can help treat their addiction.”

O’Brien said a consistent, concerted effort over a long period of time and across various sectors of the community is the only way to truly impact the drug epidemic.

“If you look at the change in attitudes and the prevalence of cigarette smoking … that took local, state, national efforts over a couple of generations,” he said. “So my feeling about the services and the innovations that we’ve had in Chautauqua County over the last year or two are very positive … but it’s not over. This is not going to be an instant ‘we took care of that problem.’ I wish it was, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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