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Counties Learn Where Region Stands in Fight Against Heroin

"This heroin thing came down so hard and so fast it made us realize how much we're up against. I'm so glad the whole area is ready to help each other with this problem. Heaven knows we can't do it by ourselves."

Mac McArthur of Transitions, a drug counseling program, was one of several speakers to address a joint meeting of the Boone, Kenton, and Campbell County Fiscal Courts on Thursday evening.

"It's not just the acute treatment part of the process that makes a difference," McArthur said. "You need the counseling to go with it and you also need the after-care services such as making sure people have decent housing, they've got a job, day care, or that they've got people helping with their business affairs, with their health. If they get out of treatment and you pat them on the back and say, 'good luck out there', odds are they'll be back in detox in a few months."

The meeting was hosted by Kenton County Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus at the Kenton County Golf Course clubhouse in Independence and followed recent discussion in Campbell and Kenton Counties about better treatment options for heroin-addicted jail inmates. Campbell Co. will be moving forward on adding treatment beds as part of its jail expansion in Newport while Kenton Co. is exploring options near its jail in South Covington.

Arlinghaus said the meeting was an informational one for county leaders to know where anti-heroin activists and resources stand as the budget-making season enters full swing. "It's important for us, especially at the county level, to understand where you all stand today and what our role is at the county level," Arlinghaus said. "We need to have an idea of where everybody stands and what's expected of us. We know there's a responsibility on all of our shoulders."

An anti-heroin task force is developing an action plan, led by the Northern Kentucky Area Development District (NKADD), to figure out how best to combat the growing drug problem across all eight Northern Kentucky counties.

Lisa Cooper of the NKADD said the plan calls for the funding of a coordinator position to be housed at the Northern Kentucky Health Department and is optimistic that the position will be filled by mid-May. The person would be "responsible for implementation of what we talk about," Cooper said.

Dr. Lynne Saddler of the Health Department said that current funding only allows for the coordinator position to be part-time. "I'd like to see it be full-time," she said. "Until we know what our allocation will be next year, we don't know for sure how much funding we'll have."

"It doesn't look promising but I'm always optimistic." 

"Time is of the essence," Saddler said. "Every minute could be somebody's life here in Northern Kentucky." When Saddler started in her role as head of the Health Department, she said heroin was not on her radar but now encompasses anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent of her week. The addiction side of the drug is not the only problem facing her organization and the region, though.

Associated illnesses include Hepatitis C and an increase in HIV diagnoses in the area because of the use of heroin needles. "We have very little capacity to treat people with Hepatitis C," said Saddler, who added that treatment could cost $600,000 over a victim's lifetime if the person has to have a liver transplant. "We need to have providers who can actually treat people, so we're putting together a grant proposal to make a huge dent in the problem we have in Northern Kentucky."

Saddler and the task force are advocating for a needle exchange program so that users can have access to clean needles and less contact with potential diseases. Such exchanges are illegal in Kentucky and an attempt to change that in Frankfort last month has been at least partially blamed for sinking the so-called Heroin Bill sponsored by Senator Katie Stine (R-Fort Thomas).

Senate Bill 5, as the heroin bill was officially called, died in the final moments of the 2014 General Assembly when the House of Representatives failed to act, much to the chagrin of Northern Kentucky legislators who represent a region most affected by the problem, as evidenced by overdose and arrest records. Some local legislators have requested that Governor Steve Beshear call a special session for the sole purpose of revisiting the Heroin Bill and the City of Covington's commission and Kenton County's fiscal court have endorsed that request.

Rep. Adam Koenig (R-Erlanger) shared in the local anger over the heroin bill's failure. "When they had eastern Kentucky problems with prescription pills, they had no problem passing that out quickly. When they had problems with meth, they had no problem passing those restrictions (on Sudafed)," Koenig said.

Rep. Joe Fischer (R-Ft. Thomas) said that the legislators could have used more support from prosecutors over the constitutionality of a provision in the heroin bill that would have permitted courts to try dealers for homicide if their customers die from an overdose.

While Frankfort sorts out what is next for the Heroin Bill, some local efforts are seeing success or could soon. NKY Med Clinic, the methadone clinic that opened last year on Covington's Madison Avenue, has treated 850 patients, according to one of its partners, Ron Washington, who attended Thursday's meeting. Dr. Jeremy Engel, of St. Elizabeth Hospital, has received widespread media coverage for his efforts in fighting heroin. He applauded the methadone clinic.

"These people would be in jail if it weren't for this," Engel said. "If you can help that man do his job, you'll succeed. (If not) you're neglecting a great resource. It has saved more lives in five months than the rest of you have done in all these meetings, and they've done it quietly and I'm impressed."

"We have to break and disrupt the dangerous and destructive cycle. We must stabilize these individuals and then manage them and none of that will be easy but that's what we have to get to. It's about time that we manage addiction like a disease. These are individuals."
More treatment will soon be available in Newport at the county jail. "We're feeding, clothing, and housing these folks. It just makes logical sense," Campbell County Judge-Executive Steve Pendery said. "It's an efficient way to handle things while these people are incarcerated and don't have access to their drugs of choice."
Pendery suggested that one jail could treat female inmates while another county jail could treat males.
Leadership Northern Kentucky's 2014 class, recently graduated from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce program, are also responsible for new treatment options that will offer beds to addicted youth and a home for addicted mothers. The effort was the 2014 class project.
St. Elizabeth Hospital will also operate a Suboxone clinic in December where a heroin-alternative will be available for the addicted.
A regional coordinator, though, would be an important point-person for the overall effort, speakers said Thursday. 
"We're fooling ourselves if we think someone working part-time is going to be able to accomplish (much)," said Boone Co. Judge-Executive Gary Moore. "We either identify additional grant funds or we look to additional budgets. From a Health Department point of view, I think the resources are there if the board chooses to support it. I think we ought to collectively send a message that we want this to be a full-time position."
"It's on my priority list," Dr. Saddler said. "We've had some pretty incredible applicants and though they know it's currently part-time, we don't have a lot of people who want to stay part-time. Most people who apply to us when we have part-time positions are interested in seeing it grow into full-time."
But as Addler said, time is of the essence in a region that has seen a 550% increase in overdose deaths from 2011 to 2012 and is responsible for 60% of the state's heroin prosecutions. 
"We're going to see a lot more lives in the process because when we're talking these numbers and these percentages, we're talking real live people," said activist Charlotte Wethington, who lost her son Casey more than a decade ago to heroin addiction. Casey's Law was later named for him and allows for individuals to be forced into treatment by non-relatives. "We as Casey's parents will never be over losing Casey. That is something you just don't get over, you manage to get through. We're losing a lot when we lose that person who has the disease of addiction. I certainly hope we're at the tipping point and that we will do more than just talk and take serious action."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: 3 Fiscal Courts meet together on Thursday to discuss heroin problem in region/RCN