The Mayor’s Heroin Treatment and Prevention Task Force released its final report along with 10 recommendations to attack the city’s heroin and opioid epidemic and unveiled a public education campaign on Monday.
The recommendations call for overdose prevention and outreach measures, real-time data tracking, 24/7 on-demand substance abuse treatment, among other measures.
“All of our efforts to make Baltimore safer and healthier will fall short without a more effective and coherent strategy against heroin abuse,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at Monday’s news conference. “We have to have a comprehensive and genuine community approach.”
She was joined by city Commissioner of Health Dr. Leana Wen, Congressman Elijah Cummings, Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, members of the task force, advocates and local elected officials.
There were 303 drug and alcohol overdose deaths in Baltimore in 2014, up from 246 in 2013; 192 of those deaths were heroin related, up from 150 in 2013. An estimated 18,900 people in Baltimore use heroin.
Wen underscored how Baltimore historically attacked drug addiction even when its methods were deemed controversial, such as when the city’s needle exchange program was started more than 20 years ago to prevent the spread of diseases through the use of contaminated needles. She said it’s time to “get bold.”
On Monday, the city also launched its campaign to encourage treatment and combat stigma. The news conference was held below a new billboard that directs people to DontDie.org, a new city website with information on the overdose prevention “life-saving” drug naloxone. Billboards and buses will have this information, which is part of a wider education campaign that includes training people on how to administer naloxone, which is a nasal spray.
“It’s easy to use. It’s safe,” Wen, who has worked as an emergency room physician, said. “I have given it to literally hundreds of patients. I watched someone who stopped breathing walk and talk again within seconds.”
Other task force recommendations include increasing data-driven high-impact options for treatment, including universal case management for inmates and recently incarcerated individuals; developing voluntary certification and review of substance use providers; and addressing issues in communities that are home to treatment centers by establishing a standardized “good neighbor agreement” and establishing best practices.
The recommendations come as Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford continue work in their own task force, which has held several regional summits.
[pullquote]All of our efforts to make Baltimore safer and healthier will fall short without a more effective and coherent strategy against heroin abuse.[/pullquote]While the widely praised naloxone is a large part of the city’s overdose prevention strategy, Congressman Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the price of the drug has been going up as demand for it has increased.
“Right here in Maryland, the price of naloxone reportedly increased more than 100 percent in eight months. It went from $19 a dose to $41 a dose,” Cummings said.
He found that when some states, such as New York and Ohio, fought Amphastar, the company that makes the most commonly used form of naloxone, they were able to get rebates on the drug.
He sent a letter to Hogan, Rutherford and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh urging them to negotiate similar deals. He and Vermont Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders also sent similar letters to the national organizations of governors, lieutenant governors and attorneys general urging them to negotiate in their states.
“These programs, ladies and gentleman, save lives,” he said. “But when drug companies increase their prices and charge exorbitant rates, they decrease the access to the drug. There’s something awfully wrong with that picture.”
While top officials in all 50 states possibly wrestle with the cost of naloxone, the city will be seeking funding for its recommendations. According to a news release, the city will look to private partners as well as the state and federal government to assist with the estimated $20 million needed over three years to accomplish the recommendations.
“I’m confident that by implementing the recommendations of the task force,” Rawlings-Blake said, “Baltimore City will continue to be a leader and a model for the rest of the state in how we attack this urgent public health challenge.”