Lancaster County commissioners on Tuesday endorsed the county's first-ever countywide initiative to fight an opioid crisis blamed in the deaths of 98 people so far this year.
"The time for action is now," said Alice Yoder, who presented the Lancaster County Joining Forces Coalition to the commissioners at their Tuesday morning work session.
The coalition's goal is to reduce the deaths caused by heroin and other opioids among county residents.
There were 117 opioid-related deaths in Lancaster County in 2016, according to Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni. The 98 deaths so far this year are as of Tuesday.
County Commissioner Josh Parsons said he had been hearing from various people over the last several months that the county needed to take a leadership position in fighting the tide of addiction to heroin and other opioids.
"I came to believe that a whole county-coordinated effort could be a big part of the solution," said Parsons, who met with the coalition several times this spring.
In Columbia, Mayor Leo Lutz is asking churches to pay for an addiction specialist.
Parsons and fellow commissioners Dennis Stuckey and Craig Lehman endorsed the coalition and promised to help lead and support its effort.
"When you have anything this widespread that impacts the number of lives and takes the number of lives that this crisis has, that's scary," Stuckey said.
The coalition's public launch will take place at 7 a.m. Thursday during a community breakfast at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences in East Lampeter Township, where Yoder and others will outline the group's initial goals.
"I think this group brings other groups together to marshal the forces in a way that may make Lancaster County a leader," Stuckey said.
The coalition is made up of nine organizations that have agreed to put proven methods to work, set action goals and report their progress to the public every three months.
The groups, representing health care, law enforcement, treatment and awareness efforts, include:
- Anti-Heroin Task Force
- South Central PA Opioid Awareness Coalition
- Lancaster County Recovery Alliance
- Compass Mark
- Lancaster County EMS Council
- Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry
- Lancaster County Drug and Alcohol Commission
- Lancaster County Drug Task Force
- Let's Talk, Lancaster
Deaths may rise
"We've done all the meetings, now we have to get to work," said Yoder. "There have been a lot of groups doing good work the past several years, but we have to notch that up and be more deliberate."
Some examples the group has outlined include the collection of real-time data to show where the greatest needs are for resources, opening a satellite office offering medication-assisted drug treatment, prevention education for schools, support groups for pain patients and expanding education on the proper use and disposal of prescription opioids.
"The coalition has pledged to use the evidenced-based methods outlined by the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration," said Yoder, who is the director of community health for LG Health/Penn Medicine.
Yoder presented the latest statewide information from county coroners showing overdose deaths in Lancaster were 45 percent higher in 2016 than the previous year, an increase greater than most counties in Pennsylvania.
"This crisis has taken a personal toll not only in Lancaster County but across the nation and is as far-reaching as any crises we have seen in recent years," Lehman said.
Yoder acknowledged that, even with a coordinated countywide effort, the number of heroin and drug-related deaths may rise for the next year or two.
"But I think our community is ready and willing to mobilize and get this work done," she said.