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U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, speaking at the task force news conference Monday, says he has asked Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh to negotiate a lower price for naloxone, a drug to counteract heroin overdoses. (Maximilian Franz / The Daily Record)

Baltimore officials seek 24/7 resources for addiction treatment

Fighting Baltimore’s heroin epidemic will require expanding access to treatment, including making sure addiction resources are available 24 hours per day, city officials say.

That means creating specialized emergency room that caters specifically to patients with substance abuse and mental-health issues, Dr. Leana S. Wen, the city’s commissioner of health, said Monday.

Wen, joined by elected officials and health advocates, unveiled 10 recommendations for tackling the city’s heroin problem developed by the Mayor’s Heroin Treatment & Prevention Task Force, convened by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in October.

The task force estimates that nearly 19,000 people in the city used heroin in the past year; last year, 192 people died from heroin-related intoxication.

While a person suffering from chest pain can go to the emergency room at any time of day for help, the same isn’t true for those seeking help for mental health or substance abuse. Nationwide, only about one in 10 people with addiction get the help they need, Wen said.

“Would we find it acceptable that only one in 10 patients with cancer can get chemotherapy?” Wen said at a news conference.

One of the first steps towards a 24/7 treatment center will be the creation of a “stabilization center” or “sobering center” in the city. State lawmakers, led by Baltimore City Del. Peter A Hammen, have secured $3.6 million to the creation of such a center, which will connect people who are intoxicated — but not necessarily in need of urgent medical care — with social workers, addiction counselors and other resources, Wen said.

A model for that center, already in place in San Antonio, Texas, has found that the facility increases access to treatment and decreases emergency-room visits, according to the task force’s report.

Wen said she has met with the leaders of the city’s hospitals systems, and she hopes they would eventually step up to cover the center’s operating costs and help fund a dedicated emergency room specializing in addiction and mental health.

The task force’s report also calls for a centralized 24/7 intake system to help connect people with substance-abuse treatment programs. Existing resources and hotlines aren’t well-known enough to be effective, and some operate only during business hours and have an average wait of five days between the time someone makes contact and the time of their first appointment, according to the report.

But a new hotline, developed by the city’s health department and the nonprofit Behavioral Health System Baltimore, will try to provide faster scheduling of appointments when it launches this fall. The system will be available around the clock, 365 days per year, according to the report.

Rawlings-Blake said the city needed a more organized plan for addressing the heroin problem. “Simply put, all of our efforts to make Baltimore safer and healthier will fall short, without a more effective and coherent strategy against heroin abuse, she said.

The task force is also calling for expanded access to naloxone, a life-saving drug that can quickly counteract the effects of an overdose of heroin or other opioids.

U.S Rep. Elijah Cummings said at the news conference that the price of the drug increased dramatically last fall “for no reason whatsoever.” In Maryland, the drug went from $19 per dose to $41 per dose over eight months Cummings said.

Officials in states including Ohio and New York have negotiated lower per-dose prices from the drug’s manufacturer, and Cummings said he’s asked Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh to pursue a similar arrangement.

“We should not let our citizens be overcharged, and we should not let the company jeopardize the positive steps our state has taken to address this crisis,” Cummings said.