The number of opioid related deaths in Arizona continues to surge, despite Gov. Doug Ducey called the crisis a public-health emergency in June.
Ducey’s declaration came after the Arizona Department of Health Services released a report showing that approximately 66 residents died each month from opioid related overdoses in the past year. But since June, that number has ballooned to 118 deaths a month.
Nicole Capone, a spokeswoman for the department of health services, said sweeping changes to the state’s opioid policy unrealistic, given that the state’s legislative session ended before the governor’s announcement and won’t resume until January. However, she also said that efforts are already being made.
“It will take some time for newer efforts to have an impact since there is a segment of the population already struggling with opioid use disorder,” Capone said. “We’ve trained law enforcement agencies and provided overdose kits for first responders, and updates are being made Arizona’s prescription guidelines.”
Over the summer, the governor’s office created a task force to come up with a plan to help decrease the death toll from prescription painkillers, heroin, fentanyl and other opioids, which has gone up by 74 percent since 2012, according to the public health officials. About 200 people were on the task force.
Haley Coles was one of them. Coles, the executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works, offers syringe access and overdose kits to those suffering from addiction throughout Arizona. She said the department of health services hasn’t backed up its talk with action.
“The emergency order didn’t really do anything,” Coles said. “It just paid for surveillance. It paid for a very expensive meeting that over 100 subject matter experts attended, only to have their advice ignored.”
Coles also expressed disappointment in the lack of input drug users had on the task force.
“Never in any meeting that I’ve been to have they included the voice of people who use drugs,” Coles said. “So there was no representation.”
However, there was at least one former addict on the task force. Lee Pioske runs Crossroads, a state licensed substance abuse treatment provider, and a place where he was once a patient.
Pioske became addicted to crack cocaine, while working on Wall Street. The addiction turned him to a life of crime, and in 1998 he was arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison.
“I lost all my money and all my friends to my addiction,” Pioske said. “I got out of prison, came to Crossroads and never left. Went to grad school, and a story of persistence, stayed around long enough that they made me the boss.”
According to Pioske, only 22 percent of the patients Crossroads treated in 2012 suffered from opioid addiction. Now, that number is up to 70 percent. He said that’s due to an influx in use amongst young people, which is supported by research from the public health agency.
“Sometimes addictive patterns cross different economic and racial barriers, this one is in all of them,” Pioske said. “The change that has to happen is that prevention and education needs to be really pushed hard in the younger population because schools are currently ravaged with opioids.”
This problem reaches far past Arizona. According to BBC News, opioids kill more than 140 Americans a day. On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared the epidemic a nationwide public health emergency. But like Ducey’s June statement, Trump’s decree came without government funding
Pioske said preventative measures are important and is satisfied with the governor’s commitment to the issue, but he said this crisis won’t end if we aren’t willing to spend money on it.
“All these problems we see in the media about healthcare has to do with cost,” Pioske said. “Are we willing to spend the money it takes to keep people healthy? Getting people the treatment they need is expensive, but the answer has to be yes if we want to solve this.”
While he is adamant that society needs to start a serious dialogue about addiction, Pioske remains optimistic that legislation will be passed to help fight drug addiction.
On September 5 Arizona’s public health agency released its Opioid Action Plan. The document lists multiple policy recommendations. The department believes implementation of these recommendations will reduce the number of opioid related deaths by 25 percent in 5 years.