As the opioid epidemic continues to spread across the country, the Story County Opioid Task Force held a town hall meeting Wednesday night so that local law enforcement, physicians and mental health professionals could help educate the public on where Story County sits on this issue, and the types of resources that are available.
Though most of the panel admitted the opioid crisis has not hit Story County full force, Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald said the epidemic will soon be here as well.
“We see things that begin on either the east or west coasts, and then we’re absorbed by it as it sweeps across the country,” Fitzgerald said. “Right now in Story County and central Iowa we don’t have a tremendous problem at this point, but we’re just watching a few counties away in eastern Iowa, and it is impacting there. Law enforcement leaders are trying to do everything they can to curb that, to protect their people responding to that, and it’s coming.”
More than 100 members of the community gathered in the Ames City Council chambers to hear from an expert panel which included Ames Police Cmdr. Geoff Huff, Partnership for a Drug Free Iowa President Peter Komendowski, Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy Associate Director Dale Woolery, Ames pharmacist Scott Sitzman, Primary Health Care Pain Management Specialist Dr. Alan Bollinger, Iowa State University Director of Student Wellness Mark Rowe-Barth and Fitzgerald.
The town hall started with a presentation by Komendowski, who said that opioid use is at an all-time high in Iowa. According to Komendowski, there were almost 65,000 opioid-related deaths nationally in 2017. What makes the United States unique from most other countries, according to Komendowski, is that only in the U.S. and New Zealand are drug companies allowed to advertise pharmaceuticals on television, and both subsequently have the highest number of opioid-related deaths.
“The medical community is firmly aware today that the use of opioids beyond the four or five-day window carries a huge risk of addiction. Now this is something that did not happen when opioids made their entry into our culture,” Komendowski said. “They came through the window of medicine, and we weren’t afraid of them.”
According to Huff, toward the end of last year, the prescription drugs that were surrendered to the department’s drug drop-box were illegal, which he said was a positive in that people were recognizing how dangerous the drugs could be in the wrong hands.
According to Fitzgerald, despite opioids still maintaining a relatively low status in the county, deputies have had to adjust their tactics when dealing with drugs around the community, due to the increase in opioid addictions and fatalities across the country.
“In the past, if somebody had a prescription pill bottle, we might have just overlooked that; we don’t do that anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “We look at that; we see what the drugs are, who they are prescribed to and who has possession of them.”
However, both Fitzgerald and Huff said the opioid problem cannot be solved by simply placing more people in jail. Fitzgerald said that last year, 74 percent of the inmates at the jail suffered from substance abuse, and both he and Huff expressed that jails are not the place for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
“Don’t allow this to become a law enforcement problem,” Huff said. “We can’t enforce our way out of this.”
On the medical side, Bollinger said that perhaps the biggest factor with opioid addiction is the relationships that people have with one another, including physicians. Bollinger said that many physicians are becoming more reluctant to even see patients suffering from chronic pain, due to the fear that the patient will simply pursue pain medication. However Bollinger said really getting to know a patient and understanding the root of the problem is the only way to treat patients, and hopefully limit the reliance on pain medication.
“Today you have 15 minutes (with a doctor) — I don’t know you, so here’s the pill for that symptom. Treating symptoms is not the way to help somebody get well,” Bollinger said. “When we’re talking about opioid abuse (or) dependency, we’re talking about a symptom. The real cause is what’s going on in that person that makes this feeling attractive to them, while it destroys every relationship that matters.”
During audience questions, Ames acupuncturist Valerie Stallbaumer spoke about the results she has seen from alternative or natural medicine as treatment for addiction, depression and PTSD. Stallbaumer asked the medical experts in the panel about what they plan to do differently to help treat chronic pain.
Komendowski said that American culture has played a major role in contributing to the issue, in that our society tends to look for the overnight cure or treatment. Though he said he was completely pro-alternative pain treatment methods, he did say that the medical community has to be sure that another “anecdotal medical cure” is not released.
“I’m often accused of being anti-drug, actually I’m pro-healthy community,” Komendowski said. “I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about eating well, living well, exercising well, but they want to smoke weed. We have a culture that has a really bizarre way of looking at what they want and how they accomplish things.
“From the medical point of view, I think we’re going to see a renaissance in the realization that we have to be more diligent and responsible in how we prescribe and deal with pain, but part of that responsibility is to let patients know that it isn’t curable overnight.”