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Johnson County Opioid Usage Appears Steady, But Red Flags Remain

Flickr - CC
Deaths from prescription opioids like the hydrocodone shown here have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While communities across the country deal with dramatic increases in illegal opioid use, statistics in Johnson County suggest rates of death and addiction closer to home are relatively more stable.

Court filings involving opioid offenses have remained relatively flat in recent years, and illegal use has decreased for hydrocodone and oxycodone, two of the most popular opiates, according to a report from public health and crime experts presented to the Johnson County Commission in June. Heroin use remains steady.

Despite those encouraging numbers, local officials are wary.

“While we would say that it appears that we haven't hit an epidemic proportion, we do see some red flags,” says Tim DeWeese, director of the Johnson County Mental Health Center.

For one thing, DeWeese says, the number of overdoses are up.

“We're seeing more of that within the Mental Health Center, needing to detox from opioids and those kinds of things,” he says.

There is more than just suspicion supporting the idea that Johnson County’s current situation is precarious. While it is easy to track when and how often the fire department or EMS is dispatched to an opioid-related emergency, those numbers only illustrate part of the picture, says Dr. Ryan Jacobsen, medical director of the county EMS System.

Credit The.Comedian / Flickr - CC
Flickr - CC
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Herion is an illicit opioid, but prescription drugs like Lortab, Vicodin and the Dilaudid shown here belong to the same class of substances.

“The challenge is there are many people who show up to an emergency department not by fire and EMS, and we don't have a good way of tracking what happens in the local emergency rooms,” Jacobsen says. “It's very difficult to measure the scope of the problem.”

Both Jacobsen and DeWeese spoke on Monday with Steve Kraske, host of KCUR's Up To Date.

The difficulty of collecting a complete set of statistics gives DeWeese pause about national trends, too.

“I think we absolutely have to take those with a dose of skepticism,” DeWeese says.

Nevertheless, Jacobsen says Kansas legislators took a step in the right direction in March, whenthey expanded access to naloxone, an emergency medicine that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

“Kansas is one of the last states in the country to have an expanded naloxone access law,” Jacobsen says, but “it doesn't really impact that opioid epidemic as far as prevention and chronic treatment.”

Missouri, too, is looking to reduce abuse. Last month, Gov. Eric Greitens created by executive order a prescription drug monitoring program. His was the last state in the country to take a data-driven approach to tracking prescription drug use.

Even Greitens acknowledged the complexity of dealing with what he called a modern plague.

Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
In July, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signed an executive order creating a drug monitoring program, bypassing the state General Assembly's failed attempts at similar legislation.

“There is no single program, or law, or executive order that can fix this crisis,” the governor said at the time.

Jacobsen and DeWeese say Missouri’s program could help medical professionals in Kansas know more about a patient’s medication history.

“Sometimes we find people getting multiple doses of oxycodone for instance,” says Jacobsen, “and they will unfortunately tell us otherwise in an attempt to get the medication.”

That problem was compounded by patients who sought treatment on both sides of the border, hoping to receive multiple prescriptions for painkillers.

“We have to … have systems within both states that we're able to communicate with each other, so we can ensure that, especially in these bi-state areas, that we have access to that information," says DeWeese.

As the issue progresses and its effects are felt by more people, DeWeese remains hopeful.

“I think that we have all the right players at the table,” he says. “We have a lot of coordination and collaboration between county departments,” but it will take more than that to keep the opiate problems from getting worse.

“It's a community-wide issue that's going to take a community-wide response,” DeWeese says.

One way community members can help loved ones suffering from addiction?

DeWeese says, “the first thing that they need to do is help that person identify a place where they can go and receive help.”

You can hear Steve Kraske's entire conversation with Tim DeWeese and Dr. Ryan Jacobsen here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's 'Up To Date.' Contact him at luke@kcur.org and on Twitter.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.