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Md. inter-agency council tries to find what works in solving opioid crisis

Dennis Schrader, State Department of Health And Mental Hygiene secretary-desginee. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Department of Health Secretary Dennis Schrader (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

The state’s Inter-Agency Heroin and Opioid Coordinating Council met Friday for the first time since new data showed a significant jump in opioid overdose deaths in Maryland.

Representatives on the council, which consists of the heads of 14 state agencies covering everything from health to law enforcement to education, said they must begin to assess what actions the state has been taking that work and what actions might not work.

“At the end of the day, we have to reduce the number of deaths related to the crisis,” Clay Stamp, executive director of the Opioid Operational Command Center, said during the quarterly meeting. “(But) is what we’re doing day-to-day making things better?”

Opioid overdose deaths increased 35 percent in the first quarter of 2017, compared to the same point last year. Heroin-related deaths increased 21 percent, while deaths related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl rose 137 percent.

Since the last time the council met, the state also handed out grant money for opioid intervention teams at the county level to assist at the ground level. The state has disbursed $4 million and expects to give these teams another $18 million.

The opioid intervention teams have programs ranging from the ability to purchase more naloxone to increased education to more precautionary specialists. As these programs kick in, the state hopes to find more information about what works and what does not work.

“We’re relying on them to give us a granular vision so we can attack this head on,” said Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader, who chairs the council.

One of the primary purposes of the council allows different state agencies to see different perspectives of the opioid crisis and determine where and how they can help. But that can also extend beyond the council: Secretary of Housing and Community Development Ken Holt attended a council meeting for the first time, at the behest of Schrader.

Holt discussed the Helping Up Mission, which serves hundreds of men fighting addiction in Baltimore every day. Holt looked at the men standing in line being served lunch one day and noticed that they were all mostly in their mid-to-late 30s, had some level of education and should otherwise be employable. Yet, because of their battles with addiction, they were out of a job and looking for help.

It was the type of perspective someone from the state police or Department of Education might not be involved with, but in the room, it could be shared in an interdisciplinary way.

“As we meet, I want to bring real world activities that we’re all working on… so we can share ideas on how to improve,” Schrader said.

At the same time, there is an inherent tension between what the council is doing and the urgency of the problem. The state’s response was compared at several times to the responses to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But it was also pointed out while much of the reaction to those events is acute, the response to the opioid crisis will take years and even decades.

The state is trying to respond quickly to the crisis, but also has to go through seemingly bureaucratic measures to make sure there is a lasting impact.

“Be patient with us,” Stamp said. “It may look like bureaucracy, but it takes time.”

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