Government and Health Care

Whitmer establishes statewide opioids task force

Group will focus on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, harm reduction.

September 6, 2019
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Michigan is creating a task force to combat the opioid epidemic sweeping the state.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan Opioids Task Force in August, which is made up of government representatives from various departments and branches.

The task force will be chaired by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The members are Chief Justice Bridget McCormack or the chief justice’s designee, and the directors or the directors’ designees from the departments of Health and Human Services; Attorney General; Licensing and Regulatory Affairs; Michigan State Police; Corrections; Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy; Insurance and Financial Services; Military and Veterans Affairs; Labor and Economic Opportunity; and Education.

Dr. Cara Poland, an addiction medicine specialist at Spectrum Health, said the goal of the task force is to help the departments within the government coordinate their efforts across different sectors.

For instance, the state’s health care system can work with the state’s justice and correction systems in prescribing and accessing the appropriate medications that meet the conditions and agreements for individuals who are on probation or parole and have substance use issues.   

According to the state, the task force will be charged with identifying the root causes of the opioid epidemic and implementing response actions to help those struggling with opioid addiction access the recovery services they need.

“As governor, my No. 1 priority is protecting our families and our overall public health,” Whitmer said. “Right now, Michigan is among the states with the highest levels of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths with 2,053 overdoses in 2017 alone. This task force will bring us one step closer to finally ending the opioid epidemic in Michigan and keeping families safe.”

The task force will be focused on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, harm reduction and specialized populations like pregnant women and returning citizens.

While the governor has established the new state task force, Kent County has an opioid task force of its own. Dr. Ken Fawcett, a medical physician at Spectrum Health and co-chair of the Kent County Opioid Task Force, said the group is made up of individuals who are pharmacists, representatives of different health plans and health systems such as Spectrum, Mercy and Metro.

According to the Kent County Medical Examiner records, the number of opioid-related deaths in 2018 decreased from 2017.

In 2017, there were 156 total drug overdose deaths and 125 of those deaths, or 80%, were opioid-related. Kent County residents were listed among 87 of the total drug overdose deaths, 66 of which were opioid-related deaths. Some of the opioids found during examinations included fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and carfentanil.

Fawcett said the task force’s objective is divided into three segments — prevention, rescue, and treatment and recovery.

The prevention efforts include reducing the circulation of opioids by establishing drop-off sites for unused, unwanted or expired controlled substances. Fawcett said that is done twice per year.

“We collect anywhere from 80 to 200 pounds at each site,” Fawcett said. “Many times, people have had loved ones who were living at home or in hospice and they had access to a host of medication, and they have passed on and some of those medications remain. Someone may have had an acute condition, either an operation or kidney stones and they were given access to powerful opioid medications but the (reason to) use them (has) gone away. So, we give people an opportunity to drop them. Some of the drugs we wind up collecting are Vicodin, Dilaudid and Percocet.”

Another facet of the prevention effort, Fawcett said, is placing an emphasis on prescribing guidelines and creating educational sessions in schools so that everyone is aware of the alternatives to opioids and the dangers of these drugs.

“Many people get their first opioid from friends and families and many start at a young age,” he said. “So, if we can prevent our younger generation from using it at a young age, we think we can prevent opioid-related deaths.”

The rescue component deals with a drug call naloxone, which reverses an overdose and prevents an opioid-related death.

“That is something that is really important to us, and we work hand in hand with an organization called the Grand Rapids Red Project, which makes this medication available free of charge,” Fawcett said. “The state of Michigan actually has a standing order so individuals can get it from the pharmacy without a prescription, which is also a powerful thing.”

The third segment is treatment and prevention. Fawcett said having an opioid use disorder is a medical condition and it needs to be treated medically.

“There are medicines that we can use to address someone's addiction, in addition to providing counseling and life intervention. We want people to know where these services are,” he said.

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