Evansville Courier and Press on 12/06/2017 by Jon Webb
Steve Lockyear didn’t see this coming.
Before this year, 2016 marked the busiest year the Vanderburgh County Coroner’s Office had ever seen. Drug overdoses spiked as heroin, fentanyl and scores of other opiates ripped through the community.
So everyone stepped up. The coroner’s office, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke’s administration, local law enforcement, hospitals and community groups launched widespread efforts to educate the public on the danger of opioids.
But so far, those efforts have failed to make a difference. Instead, things have gotten much worse.
Last year, the coroner’s office worked 50 fatal drug overdoses. This year?
“We’re way up,” Lockyear said. “We were past the 50th at the beginning of November.”
As of Tuesday, the coroner’s office had worked 65 confirmed fatal drug overdoses; 24 came from heroin or fentanyl. The majority of the others were opiate-based as well, but they also covered everything from cocaine to K2 to helium.
A lot of victims, he said, had multiple drugs in their system. And there are still several pending cases.
“I would say that we’ll hit, at least, 70 this year,” he said. “At the rate it’s going, I’d be naïve to think we won’t.
“That’s about one every five days. … It doesn’t take very long for you to find somebody that has, or knows somebody that has, a family member that’s overdosed or died.”
Those kinds of numbers would be depressing in any year. But they’re especially so now because this was the year everything was supposed to turn around.
State legislators jammed a parade of opiate bills through the General Assembly in 2017. State Sen. Jim Merritt – who says he aims to end the epidemic within five years – introduced 19 on his own.
In an interview with the Courier & Press in September, he offered some blunt honesty that turned out to be prophetic.
“Frankly, we’re losing the battle right now,” he said. “You don’t hear that very often, but we are.”
Merritt still believes Indiana can stop heroin’s trample within half-a-decade. But there are several reasons not to share in that optimism.
1. We’re not providing any extra money to fight the problem in 2018
A lot of different groups take cash to combat drug addiction in some way, but we only sit aside $5 million a year for the state drug czar. And according to several legislators, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, that number won’t increase in 2018.
The reason? It’s a non-budget year, and our lawmakers are terrified of those. But it’s a stupid excuse, because they break their own rule all the time. In 2012, another non-budget year, they approved $100 million to fund all-day kindergarten.
That was a good reason to bend tradition. And, considering the numbers, the opioid scourge is, too.
2. County records are incomplete
That’s not the case in Vanderburgh. Lockyear keeps meticulous track of overdose deaths.
But it’s a problem elsewhere, especially in poor, rural areas. Merritt complained about that in September. He said Indiana is a top-5 state when it comes to the opioid problem, but we were only able to secure middle-of-the-road money from the feds because of shoddy data across counties.
“I think overall we couldn’t prove we have the problem that we actually have,” he said.
3. The federal government
Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Kellyanne Conway, a person with no medical background, will be in charge of curbing overdoses.
All this leaves aside the uncertainty around healthcare – especially Medicaid – as well as the state’s unwillingness to experiment with alternate pain treatments, such as CBD oil, which Attorney General Curtis Hill ridiculously declared illegal last month.
And it paints the possibility of a bleak future for the Tri-State: a place already grappling with poverty and high suicide rates.
Lockyear estimated that about 500 area people have died of drug overdoses in the last 12-14 years. And if we don’t find a way to get a handle on opioids, the number is just going to climb.
“I thought we’d curb it this year. I was just totally shocked,” he said. “One of the biggest public (problems) we had is people just didn’t understand heroin and the danger of the opiates. And now that we’ve (educated them) and people are still dying, I just don’t know what to do.”
“The sad thing about my job is, it’s over when we get there. We’ve failed.”
Contact Jon Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org