A good start in Snohomish County toward fighting the opioid crisis statewide
The statistics are alarming, but real. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates prescription opioid misuse costs the United States $78.5 billion a year. Here in Washington state, the economic cost of the opioid epidemic in 2016 was more than $9.19 billion. Setting aside the economics, the CDC says 1,018 people in our state died from opioid overdoses in the 12-month period ending July 2017. To put that in perspective, that's just under the entire population of the Whidbey Island city of Langley, population 1,097.
While Island and Skagit counties are fighting the opioid crisis, the area in our corner of the state with the worst problem is Snohomish County. Although Snohomish County comprises only 10 percent of the state's population, it now accounts for 18 percent of the heroin-related deaths statewide. In 2016, 90 people in Snohomish County died from opioid abuse. And last July when the Snohomish County Health District conducted a one-week survey, it discovered 37 reported overdoses in the county, with three fatalities.
I understand the necessity of prescription drugs for pain management. However, as a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Department, I witness firsthand the effects of the uncontrolled use and abuse of opioids that destroy good people's lives. As a community, we are losing far too many family members, friends and neighbors throughout our state to opioid abuse and addiction. I have witnessed high school students overdosing and dying, and fathers and mothers with otherwise goods jobs and lives, losing it all to addiction.
I agree with Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary, who noted in recent hearings that we cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic. We recognize there needs to be a different and more effective approach to help people out of their destructive cycle of opioid abuse. I believe the opioid crisis must be addressed as a top priority, and we must do so in a holistic manner by focusing on prevention and treatment, along with provisions for local enforcement efforts of illicit drug supplies and prescription painkillers.
During the 2018 session, I led the effort in the Legislature to address the opioid problem under House Bill 2287. The measure sought to create a pilot diversion center program in Snohomish County to provide treatment and counseling to voluntary patients, and to connect them to other services, such as housing and employment assistance.
Although the bill passed unanimously in the House, it stalled in the Senate. I didn't give up, however, because this issue is about saving lives. I was able to secure $800,000 in the state supplemental operating budget to help fund the Snohomish County Diversion Center, which I'm proud to say is expected to open later this month.
The center will re-purpose an existing work release building in Everett to house 44 beds (32 men and 12 women) for short-term placement and shelter (up to 15 days). Prospective participants will be identified by the county's law enforcement/embedded social worker teams and assigned a case manager to help them enroll in treatment options. Those options include medication-assisted treatment, inpatient residential treatment, help for mental illness, and other social services to address individual needs, such as housing assistance or basic health care. I am hopeful the center will serve as a launching pad to get people out of homeless camps and connected to longer-term services.
To gauge success, the county will report to the state the rates of recidivism, connection to housing, employment and other services. It is my hope we can use this program to demonstrate to the whole state that this is the way to go. If we can show the Legislature this program works and is successful, it would provide the impetus for a greater investment toward the creation of this model in all parts of our state, including Island and Skagit counties, to fight the opioid crisis.
We need to move beyond the costly way of using our jails as a dumping ground for people who need treatment and medical care. This practice has proven ineffective in combating opioid addiction and the crimes that stem from drug abuse and untreated mental illness.
Expanded use of Narcan (naloxone), which can halt the effects of an overdose, has been attributed to significant decreases in deaths from overdose. However, to continue this life-saving effort, the state must do more! While the Legislature has provided more resources for prevention and treatment options in recent state budgets, we must double our efforts to cut the supply of illegal opioids. This effort must include making sure the state Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission rigidly enforces rules against excessive prescribing of opioids. Additionally, we must put in place provisions to support our local narcotics task forces to equip them in cutting off the supply of illegal opioid drugs.
This effort takes teamwork. Coordination and cooperation between communities and agencies, state and local must be achieved! Let's work together to reduce the statistics, treat survivors, end the cycle of addiction, help those out of homelessness, provide referral to employment services, and give people the opportunity to restore their health and their lives.
I'm proud to say Snohomish County is off to a good start. Now let's work to make it statewide!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, serves the 10th Legislative District and is the assistant ranking member of the House Public Safety Committee. He also works as a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Department.