Wasteful spending on a website won’t cure Illinois’ heroin woes

Heroin is the greatest drug threat in Illinois.

A Google search for “information about heroin addiction” renders 1.2 million related results. A search on “information about prescription opioid abuse” turns up 671,000. The great World Wide Web has no shortage of information about the dangers of heroin, facts about addiction and the relationship between prescription drugs, opioids and fatal overdoses. Rightfully so — it’s an enormous public health crisis that threatens the livelihood of our families, friends, communities and nation. At what point, though, does the information highway fall short of the demand for real solutions?

Heroin is the greatest drug threat in Illinois. Its prevalence has increased significantly over the last 10 years. The state has received multiple federal grants to help combat the issue. Illinois’ Heroin Crisis Act of 2015 was predicted to be groundbreaking legislation, and has since been a model for other states to follow. Illinois employs a bipartisan Heroin Task Force that works to address the heroin addiction problem from a multitude of angles. Additionally, at least a dozen other task forces throughout the state have been formed to address the growing problem. Illinois also has a comprehensive collection of educational information published on its Department of Health website. This information includes resources for individuals, families, caregivers, physicians and other healthcare workers, and community organizations. The Illinois Department of Human Services also provides online resources about substance abuse, addiction, treatment options, access to care, and a Drug Overdose Prevention Problem. These resources, along with those provided online by the local task forces, provide invaluable information. Their validity or value is not in question here.

What is in question, however, is why the Illinois general assembly is spending time and resources considering a bill that would create another website to educate people on heroin and prescription opioid abuse. If HB 3161 (a bipartisan bill to amend existing Illinois law) is passed, it will essentially result in a website that will duplicate information that is already available on other state-run websites. The new website, which according to the bill, will include the warning signs of heroin and opioid addiction, available treatment options and services, links to flyers and resources for download, and other related information. Here are links to where most of that information already exists within the Illinois state websites: warning signs of addiction; treatment options and services; flyers and resources. In addition to these resources, the Illinois sites link to information for teenagers, physicians, researchers and other audiences seeking information and statistics about the issue.

The opioid and heroin addiction crisis in Illinois is not going to be solved by building another website. Sure, the state’s existing resources could stand to be updated and possibly organized in a more user-friendly way, but by and large the information is already out there. I can’t help but wonder if this is a hollow attempt by state legislators to fool constituents into thinking they’re actually doing something. It’s a popular topic these days and perhaps low hanging fruit for leaders to nab so they can justify their paycheck and hopeful reelection. But I’m not buying it, and my guess is others aren’t either.

Illinois is in rough shape. The state has the lowest credit rating in the nation at just two grades above junk status, and is facing possible downgrades at the end of this month. We need pension reform, a balanced budget, term limits, crime prevention, economic growth, and drastic improvements in public health, including the worsening heroin epidemic. With all of these problems to tackle, it’s disheartening that this new bill to create a website is how Illinois legislators are spending their time. Considering the capital investments it would require the state to implement and maintain a new website, and the fact that Illinois struggles to pay its existing bills, it’s hard for this voter to justify getting behind this bill. Bottom line: a new website, when created to provide content that is already provided online by the state, is not the answer.

So what will work? Action. Here are ways I believe people and organizations can effect changes that don’t involve using taxpayer money to recreate existing resources.

· The state should make it easier for physicians and clinicians to register for and use the prescription drug monitoring program. Pass legislation to simplify those processes and reduce the time and administrative burden for physicians.

· Educators should train nurses, physicians, and other health care providers to think preventively. Health care practices should ensure providers talk with teens and parents about the dangers of drug use, including the risks of addiction to prescription opioid pain medication.

· Physicians and other prescribers, who are often the first line of defense, should use caution, discretion and diligence when prescribing opioid medications.

· Policy makers, lobbyists and advocates should keep vocalizing their support of medication-assisted treatment and expansion of layperson access to Naloxone, which from 1996 to 2014 saved over 26,000 lives.

· Insurers should ensure coverage for MAT, increasing the chances that those in need will seek and be able to afford treatment.

· People suffering from addiction should rest assured that seeking treatment can and will save their life, and that there are resources, support groups and programs available at a variety of levels to assist in finding and getting a cure.

Everyone else — we can change our attitudes. We can change the conversation and begin to recognize substance abuse is a disease that impairs a person’s emotional, physical and cognitive abilities. It is not a problem just for the poor, the weak-willed, the uneducated or any other categorical persona. Two million Americans have an addiction involving prescription pain relievers, and somewhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million Americans are chronic heroin users. Chances are there are less than a few degrees of separation between most Americans and someone whose life is affected by this problem.

So as we, as citizens, legislators, patients, community activists, and family members, think about how to help solve the heroin and opioid addiction crisis, let us not fall for superfluous busy work wearing the guise of a real fix. Illinois does not need another website with links. It needs action, advocacy and actual solutions.