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Region gets $1M to fight opioids

ALPENA — What does it take to save northern Michigan from drug-related deaths?

A million dollars won’t solve the problem, but it sure won’t hurt, either.

A $1 million federal grant awarded this month to a consortium working to combat the deadly effects of opioid abuse will enhance addiction-fighting efforts already in place in 16 Michigan counties, most of them in Northeast Michigan.

In 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 220 counties in the nation that were especially vulnerable to HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks among persons who inject drugs. Of those, 11 were located in Michigan, including Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties.

The CDC study based their rankings on drug-overdose death rates, prescription opioid sales, per capita income, race/ethnicity, and unemployment rates, among other factors.

“This was a problem right in our back yard,” said Jill Oesterle, manager for Rural Health Clinic Services for the Michigan Center for Rural Health. Motivated by the CDC report, Oesterle and a group of representatives from around northern Michigan formed a coalition determined to address needs in the Michigan counties identified as high-risk.

In October 2018, the newly formed Northern Michigan Opioid Response Consortium was awarded a $200,000 planning grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. The funding was used to identify gaps in drug addiction care, learn what methods of care are most effective, and develop a strategy for addressing the factors that put rural northern Michigan at risk of opioid deaths.

In addition to the original 11, the consortium has added to its membership several other counties, including Alpena County.

At the beginning of August, the consortium was awarded a $1 million federal grant from a program designed specifically to fight opioid abuse in rural communities.

A recently released federal database shows Montmorency County was one of the highest per-capita opioid recipients in Michigan between 2006 and 2012, with more than 4 million prescription pain pills prescribed in the area in those years, enough to provide 61 pills per year to each resident in the county.

The federal grant will be used to offer assistance with housing, employment, peer recovery coaches, and other support services for those struggling with opioid addiction, Oesterle said. It will also provide education for law enforcement, health care professionals, and the general public, and further such programs such as Naloxone distribution and syringe exchanges. Naloxone is an overdose treatment.

Stigma-reduction efforts are important to the consortium, Oesterle said, citing recent science that confirms addiction is a medical condition and not a choice.

“Addiction hijacks your brain,” Oesterle explained. “It’s not just bad behavior.”

Representatives from Alpena organizations Catholic Human Services, Thunder Bay Community Health Service, and Alcona Health Center have been a part of the consortium’s planning process and will be key in implementing use of the million-dollar grant.

Despite significant efforts on the part of multiple organizations, drug abuse remains a persistent problem in our Northeast Michigan communities, said Kara Steinke, regional manager for Catholic Human Services.

“We’ve been duped, as a country,” Steinke said. “This opioid crisis is something that’s been done to us. It’s not a moral failure of people.”

A community has to respond to a drug abuse problem in its midst, Steinke said, and grants such as the recent million-dollar windfall make that more possible.

Her work alongside the experts on the consortium has given her exposure to other communities’ models, offering ideas that may prove effective in Alpena County. Similarly, the Northeast Michigan region has much to offer other counties.

Steinke held up Alcona Health Center and Thunder Bay Community Health Service as examples of excellent integrations between whole-body and mental health care alongside on-site addiction treatment, focusing on the individual’s physical needs during recovery.

Drug courts, medication-assisted treatment, and physician training are other strengths of our community as it battles addiction, Steinke said.

Current addiction-fighting can and will continue to improve, Steinke said.

An initial think tank meeting next week between Catholic Human Services and staff at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena will address the hospital emergency room’s leadership role in spotting symptoms of substance abuse disorder and connecting individuals with community organizations that can provide needed help to break the addiction cycle.

“This is a community problem,” Steinke said, “and it’s going to take all of us to get past this initial crisis and then go upriver and prevent it from continuing.”

The consortium met yesterday to continue discussions about the best ways to put $1 million to work in rural Michigan to help end deaths from drug abuse.

“It’s a struggle that doesn’t have to happen,” said Oesterle. “There’s some good work that’s going to happen.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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