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Since 2013, Boise opioid deaths have increased a hundredfold. How do we stop it?

These Idahoans’ goals: Reduce opioid overdoses by 50 percent

Treasure Valley health care providers, law enforcement, prosecutors and other public agencies talk about collaborating to tackle the growing opioid crisis in July 2018.
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Treasure Valley health care providers, law enforcement, prosecutors and other public agencies talk about collaborating to tackle the growing opioid crisis in July 2018.

Amy Jeppesen sees Treasure Valley residents who are trying to kick opioid addictions every day.

“People hear ‘opioid epidemic,’ and they think big city, not Boise,” said Jeppesen, a licensed clinical social worker who owns the addiction treatment center Recovery 4 Life. “We used to have maybe one a week who was an opioid user. Now if we had 10 people come in a week, probably six or seven are opioid users. It’s a big percentage.”

She’s increased the number of pro bono slots at her facility from five to 25 in the past year, in large part because there was a state funding shortfall for substance abuse treatment last year.

“There’s no funding to treat them,” she said. “What do you do?”

Opioid deaths are rising fast. Boise had one opioid death in 2013, but by last year, that number grew to 96, according to city officials.

Jeppesen is part of a valley-wide group, organized by the Treasure Valley Partnership, that aims over the next three years to better educate the public about the problem, attack it on multiple fronts and cut opioid deaths in half. On average, 115 Americans die of opioid overdose every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We know that this issue does not stop at our city boundaries — that this is a Treasure Valley-wide, state of Idaho and national issue,” said Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd at a press conference Monday morning at City Hall West in Boise. “With those that have come together to put strategies, or goals and strategies behind how we can react as a group of elected officials and community professionals, we can address this by working together.”

“It is only by working together that we can find a resolution,” de Weerd said. The Treasure Valley Partnership is a coalition of 14 city mayors and three county commissioners from Ada, Canyon and Owyhee counties.

In early June, about 60 people associated with the Treasure Valley initiative met for the first planning summit. A strategic plan grew out of that first meeting, and some members of the group met at City Hall West on Monday morning to refine the plan. Working on one of six teams, participants developed performance measurements for goals that were set at the initial summit.

What can the public do to get involved?

“The best thing people can do is get informed — to know that the crisis doesn’t just affect ‘those people’ in the Treasure Valley,” said Monica Revoczi, president of Interaction Consulting International Inc., who is leading the initiative. “It affects everyone.”

Getting an understanding opioids is a good first step, she said.

There are several types of opioid drugs — and different ways that people are becoming part of the epidemic.

Opioids are used in pain management. Doctors prescribe oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocone (Vicodin), morphine and methadone.

The drug fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine; it is used for treating severe pain, such as advanced cancer. Illegally made fentanyl has been on the rise in recent years.

Heroin is an illegal opioid. It’s highly addictive, cheaper than prescription opioids and easily obtained on the street.

Jeppesen said many of those people 55 and older who come to her treatment center have become addicted to prescription opioids while taking them for chronic pain issues. New CDC guidelines advise doctors to take extra care in what they prescribe and how much, with recommendations such as “start low and go slow” and “when opioids are needed for acute pain, prescribe no more than needed.”

The number of opioid prescriptions in the Treasure Valley in 2017 might surprise you. Ada County topped 460,000, while Canyon County exceeded 103,000, according to data that the city of Boise provided to the Statesman.

“Five years ago, if you hurt your elbow, you’d walk out of of the doctor’s office with 30 days of opiates,” Jeppesen said. Now, you’re more likely to receive three days worth of pain medication, she said.

Those who become addicted to prescription opioids — whether it’s their own medications or they’re swiping someone else’s pills, as children are known to do — often find the next easiest and cheapest opioid high is heroin. The high only lasts three hours.

“Then they start into withdrawals,” Jeppesen said. “They have to find a fix. They start selling things.”

Boise’s opioid-related arrests have quadrupled in the past few years, going from 32 in 2014 to 143 in the first 10 months of 2017 (the full year’s data was not available).

Boise Police Chief Bill Bones spoke briefly at the Monday morning press conference about a pilot program that will be part of the six-pronged strategic plan developed by the group to address the opioid crisis. He called it a “law enforcement-assisted diversion program.”

Officers will identify non-violent, low-risk offenders with opioid addictions to participate in a treatment program, rather than go to jail.

“To get out of the loop of repeated arrest, the loop of a minor offense turning into something that’s going to be a life-long sentence to the criminal justice system,” Bones said. “An ability to take people and give them a path forward to success, that’s what’s happening here.”

There will be 10 people who participate in that pilot program, with a grant obtained by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

In April last year, the Governor’s Office of Drug Policy spearheaded an effort to create a statewide plan to address the opioid crisis. The result was the Idaho Opioid Misuse and Overdose Strategic Plan, 2017-2022. Revoczi led that initiative, and she’s been contracted by the city of Boise for about $17,000 to do the valley opioid plan.

“That was a more global view. This is to really dig into the specific needs of the Treasure Valley and digging in at the local level,” she said.

Get help

If you have an opioid addiction and need help finding resources, here are some options:

  • National Opiate Hotline: 1-888-784-6641

  • BPA Health: 1-800-922-3406

  • Idaho CareLine: 2-1-1

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413