County grapples with opioid debacle

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The Board of Supervisors has declared March as Prescription Drug Abuse Awareness Month in Humboldt County and will consider whether to join other counties in suing a group of large pharmaceutical companies for their marketing of prescription opioids.

What’s been described as an “opioid crisis” was the focus of the proclamation, which was approved at the board’s March 20 meeting.

And as the county’s worrisome rate of opioid overdose deaths was discussed, County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck announced that legal action against the companies that manufacture opioid painkillers will be considered at this week’s board meeting, on March 27.

Blanck said the agenda includes a request to “join the litigation of various counties across the country going after at least six of the large opioid producers.”

Sponsored by Supervisor Virginia Bass, the proclamation approved last week describes prescription drug abuse as “the nation’s fastest-growing drug problem” and adds that “Humboldt County is deeply affected, losing many residents each year to unintentional drug overdoses.”

Rosemary Den Ouden chairs the RX Safe Humboldt Coalition, which is made up of health care provider organizations and has worked to reduce opioid prescription excesses.

Describing the scale of the situation, she said that the county “is still facing a deep burden of opioid-related overdose,” with half of the unintentional drug overdoses between 2005 and 2017 being opioid-related.

Den Ouden added that her interest in the issue has a personal element, as her daughter graduated from Arcata High School in 2013 and since then, has “lost five friends to opioid-related overdoses.”

The proclamation states that Humboldt’s rate of opioid overdose deaths is five times higher than the rest of the state. The rate of opioid prescribing decreased in 2016, according to the proclamation, but it was still about twice the state’s rate.

Bass said that she often encounters people who tell her that their families have been affected by opioid addiction. McKinleyville resident Lisa Dugan, who is the director of the North Coast Regional Department of Child Support Services, related how her daughter became addicted after being given prescription opioids by a co-worker. 

“So many of us are angry because we see the needle litter on the ground and it makes us angry because of what is happening in our community and the poor choices that are being made, and I’m here to say that I don’t think addiction is necessarily a choice,” Dugan said. “Watching what’s happened to my daughter, I think that it’s not something she ever intended.”

She believes pharmaceutical companies are culpable. “I have a lot of anger over seeing needle litter too but its directed more at drug companies that have sold us a bill of goods about how non-addictive prescription opioids are and that has been one of the reasons that we’re in the situation that we’re in.”

RX Safe Humboldt aims to reduce the county’s high prescription rate but Den Ouden acknowledged that opioids provide “very effective pain management for certain situations.”

They are not an effective way to deal with chronic pain, she added. “So we’ve been working with our providers not only to reduce the number of new starts but also to reduce unsafe prescribing levels,” she said.

The reduction is measured in Morphine Milligram Equivalents (MMEs) and Den Ouden reported that from 2015 to 2016 there was a 12 percent reduction in Humboldt’s MMEs.

But the county is still double the state in the number of opioid prescriptions and the number of prescribed doses.

“We’re working hard to bring our levels into a more safe range,” Den Ouden said.

Bass announced that she and Senator Mike McGuire will host the county’s second opioid crisis town hall forum on March 29 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sequoia Conference Center in Eureka.

The meeting was adjourned in memory of Herrmann Spetzler, who co-founded and led the Open Door Community Health Centers network.

Spetzler died “unexpectedly and peacefully” on March 11, according to an Open Door press release.

Supervisor Mike Wilson described the work of Spetzler and his wife, Cheyenne, as “visionary,” adding that “he saw the challenge coming, which is really the collapse of private practice.”

Spetzler “set up the infrastructure both physically and administratively to receive these, what I will call, orphan doctors and medical providers because they could not survive under the new paradigm,” Wilson continued.

Because Spetzler set up such an effective system, Open Door remains a “resilient and growing organization,” Wilson said.


TOWN HALL MEETING ON OPIOID CRISIS Senator Mike McGuire and County Supervisor Virginia Bass have announced a Town Hall meeting to discuss the opioid crisis impacting Humboldt County and communities nationwide on Thursday, March 29, at 6:30 p.m. Access Humboldt will simulcast the event live on Suddenlink channel 10 for people who are unable to attend in person. Last November, hundreds of local residents attended an initial meeting about the opioid epidemic, and the upcoming event will be a chance for the community to discuss how the situation is evolving and to ask for input on potential solutions. Humboldt County has the second highest rate of opioid overdoses in the state per capita, a situation that puts tremendous pressure on local medical facilities as well as paramedics, doctors, nurses, police officers, county case workers and the community as a whole. In 2016, the opioid overdose rate for the state as a whole was 4.6 per 100,000 residents. The Humboldt County rate was nearly five times higher at 22.35 per 100,000.

“When we last met in November, neighbors, community and healthcare leaders advanced their concerns and initial solutions related to the opioid crisis,” Senator McGuire said. “Now, as promised, Supervisor Bass and I are bringing local and statewide leaders back together to hear about the progress that is being made with this ongoing crisis and update the community on the issues they advanced last fall.”

The meeting will feature statewide experts, health professionals, local leaders and addiction specialists. County and city officials will discuss strategies being implemented at the local level, with progress reports from North Coast treatment providers including Open Door Community Health Center, Aegis Treatment and Waterfront Recovery Center. The community will also   about harm reduction efforts including needle exchange and syringe management programs being implemented at the county and city level, as well as receiving a report from the California Department of AIDS on statewide efforts in harm reduction.



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