This County Would Have Seen Its Opioid Overdose Rate Double

Buffalo, N.Y.

Buffalo, N.Y.

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Erie County, N.Y. Executive Mark Poloncarz says his jurisdiction was on its way to 550 overdose deaths in 2016. Here’s what the county government did to keep that from happening.

This is the fourth in a series of Route Fifty video interviews from the National Association of Counties annual conference in Franklin County, Ohio.

In 2015, overdoses related to opioids left 256 residents of Erie County, New York dead. And, at the rate things were going in the early months of last year, local officials were preparing themselves to see that number more than double.

“At the rate we were going, we should have had about 550 deaths,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told Route Fifty in an interview in Columbus, Ohio during the National Association of Counties annual conference last week.   

But that dreaded doubling never materialized, and the county’s 2017 overdose rate has remained relatively flat compared to similar jurisdictions. Poloncarz attributes that success, in part, to the county’s comprehensive, all-hands-on-deck, multi-faceted approach.

That strategy started in early 2016, when Poloncarz declared a public health emergency and formed a task force with every possible type of stakeholder that could speak to the crisis. The county took recommendations from that task force, and from a national task force jointly run by NACo and the National League of Cities, of which Poloncarz was a member, very seriously.

The county set up pill and sharps disposal boxes in nearly every public building available. “Literally, if it’s a public building, we probably have a needle drop-off as well as a prescription drug drop-off location there,” said Poloncarz. The county also runs a needle exchange program.

The needle services provided by the county are particularly crucial at this point in the epidemic, according to Poloncarz. One of the biggest problems the county is seeing in recent months is a spike in hepatitis c cases. The disease is both highly communicable among populations that share needles, and incredibly expensive to treat. One course of hepatitis c medication can cost as much as $100,000.

Along with treatment of substance abuse and the ancillary diseases that go along with it, Poloncarz is a vocal evangelist for the church of prevention. If a county provides treatment alone, without a prevention plan, Poloncarz says, it will only have a “revolving door” problem on its hands.

A large part of the prevention plan in Erie County involved taking the message on the dangers of prescription painkillers straight to the prescribers themselves. But, doctors in the county were initially hesitant to take top-down orders from the government when it came to their dispensing practices. So, county officials in Erie worked closely with the local medical society to make sure new guidelines would be coming from a trusted source.  

Poloncarz also brought the county’s three main hospital systems to the table. Now, all three hospital units follow the same prescribing guidelines for patients that come into their emergency rooms. That way, “it doesn’t matter which hospital you go to, you’re going to get the same kind of treatment,” said Poloncarz.

And those efforts to get prescribers to cut back on opioid dispensing appear to be working.

For about a decade, the single most prescribed drug in Erie County was the generic version of OxyContin. That drug has now moved down to the fifth slot on the list, said Poloncarz.

Watch Route Fifty’s interview with County Executive Mark Poloncarz to learn more about his county’s efforts to fight the epidemic.

PREVIOUSLY on Route Fifty:

Other Interviews from the National Association of Counties 2017 annual conference

Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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