CARBONDALE — Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti made her way to Southern Illinois on Tuesday as part of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force.
Sanguinetti toured the Gateway Foundation in Carbondale. About 40 people walked throughout the campus where teenagers and adults live in dorm-style quarters similar to those at Southern Illinois University. Sanguinetti even took time out of the tour to answer a question from a resident at the foundation about changes to Medicare.
As the state began to seriously look into the opioid epidemic, officials realized they needed to travel. The governor called for a task force to fight the crisis. The task force has looked at strategies to prevent expansion of the opioid crisis, treat and promote the recovery of individuals with opioid-use disorder, and reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths.
“If you are in the Chicagoland, you may have completely different services than you would in Mount Vernon,” Sanguinetti said.
Since 2013, the number of heroin overdose deaths in Illinois has doubled, and the number of opioid overdose deaths has quadrupled. More than 1,900 people in Illinois are expected to die of opioid overdoses this year — more than one-and-a-half times the number of homicides and almost twice the number of fatal motor vehicle crashes. Between 2013 and 2016 in Illinois, total drug overdose deaths increased by almost 50 percent, overdose deaths involving opioids increased 76 percent, and overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, increased 258 percent.
“Addiction doesn’t just affect one type of person,” said Michelle Bertinetti, outreach coordinator for the Gateway Foundation. "It has a widespread effect.”
Sanguinetti agreed, calling the epidemic an “equal opportunity aggressor.”
“It is killing our elderly in very surprising numbers,” she said.
Sanguinetti explained in a roundtable discussion following the tour that the state has taken a few steps to fight back, including the task force. A statewide standing order allows pharmacists and naloxone training programs in Illinois to provide naloxone without a direct prescription to individuals at risk of an opioid overdose, as well as to others who may assist an individual suffering an opioid-related overdose.
Narcan (naloxone) is a medication used for the complete or partial reversal of opioid overdose, including respiratory depression. Narcan is also used for diagnosis of suspected or known acute opioid overdose and also for blood pressure support in septic shock.
Part of Sanguinetti’s reasoning for traveling throughout the state was to check in on the needs of facilities similar to Gateway.
Anna Jurich, interim executive director of the facility, said the facility's biggest problem is lack of space.
“We struggle with having enough space to serve the people that need to be served,” she said.
Bertinetti echoed Jurich’s sentiment but added the state could help with giving residents some additional help once they go through the facility’s program. She said the insurance agencies provide less coverage in Illinois, and recovery homes can solve a few problems.
“Giving an option for a recovery home for a safe living environment would be an ideal situation in Southern Illinois,” she said, adding she has seen adolescent boys transition to recovery homes with major success. “I am happy to see that and be on that side of it, but I think we need more.”
Dr. Jeffrey Ripperda, a family doctor in Murphysboro, said he’s been disappointed in his own profession about the way some experienced physicians have handled the opioid problem. He said there are plenty of doctors who recognize the problem, but there are still doctors who live by the belief that the pain in the patient is what they said it is.
“There are doctors who continue to prescribe high doses of opioids and there are addicts in the area who know who those doctors are,” he said. “They seek them out and know what to say to get those opioids. Opioid pills are not coming up through Mexico or being synthetically manufactured. Every pill out there is prescribed by a physician somewhere.”
Ripperda called for a limit on opioids a physician can prescribe to a certain patient or similar measures.
There were comments made about drug courts and their usefulness as a deterrent, but some think the justice system needs to get involved before court in order to help turn a person’s life around before they even start to slide into addiction.
Carbondale city attorney Jamie Snyder said it is important to reach the younger generation when they are starting to learn about these drugs, and show them the consequences.
“If you are going to make change, you have to do as early on as possible,” he said. “It is much easier to teach a young pup tricks than it is an old dog.”
Jackson County Sheriff Robert Burns said opioids are a hard drug to track. He said in rural areas like Jackson County, people will travel to the St. Louis area to purchase drugs at a reduced rate, then come back and sell for a profit, while saving just enough of the drug for their own high. He said some people are spending about $1,000 a day.
“By the time we deal with them at the county facilities, it could be the best place for them,” Burns said. “At least we know they are getting fed properly and receiving medical attention. We have people who come into our facility over a 30- or 40-day period and will gain a pound each day.”
He said there has to be some sort of transition period when they leave the county jail because they have detoxed while in jail, and when returning to society, there is a greater chance for overdose. He painted the picture of one heroin dealer who cuts the drug into eight doses, and another who cuts it into five doses; then, if an addict goes to the dealer who cuts it five times, there is a higher chance of an overdose.
“When we deal with drug addictions and mental health issues, we know we can’t arrest our way out of it, but they don’t need to be out there (on the street) either,” he said.
Anybody struggling with opioid addiction can call the state’s hotline at 1-833-2FINDHELP.