MERRILLVILLE — Many communities in America are being ravaged by an opioid epidemic, and Northwest Indiana is not immune.

The question is, what to do about it?

Federal, state and local officials met Monday in Merrillville to discuss how they can work together to reduce both supply and demand for heroin and prescription painkillers in the Region.

Every day, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

“Everybody’s in this to make sure our young men and women have a chance to live out their lives in a long, productive way rather than being tied down with drug abuse,” U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said after the meeting held at the Merrillville school district’s administrative offices.

Donnelly noted the Senate recently passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which continues a trend of taking a public health approach to substance abuse. The law would divert more criminal offenders into treatment, increase access to overdose-reversal drugs and expand medication-assisted therapy for opioid users.

The measure also would further tighten rules for prescribing opioids, a tactic that already may be bearing fruit: Donnelly noted that Indiana recently saw its first drop in opioid prescriptions in decades.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller noted that while the U.S. makes up 4 percent of the world’s population, it consumes 80 percent of the planet’s opioids.

He said the crisis is a “man-made problem,” pointing to the former head of the Food and Drug Administration’s comments that the epidemic is one of the “great mistakes of modern medicine.”

“There is a lot of finger-pointing we can do,” Zoeller said.

“But right now we’re in the triage stage, where you’ve just got to try to save as many lives as possible while we try to get out ahead of having fewer people enter the addiction cycle.”

Zoeller, a Republican, said Congress should act on President Obama’s request, back in February, to spend $1.1 billion to increase access to substance abuse treatment. Indiana has the fourth-largest shortage of substance abuse specialists of any state, according to Pew. A local illustration: The Porter County Jail is that’s county’s de facto detox center.

While some parts of the state and country struggle more with prescription opioids — southeast Indiana last year experienced a large HIV outbreak caused by widespread use of the painkiller Opana — in Northwest Indiana, heroin rules.

“Clearly heroin is the No. 1 drug as of right now,” said Chuck Porucznik, executive director of the Lake County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, an organization Donnelly said will see increased funding to tackle the epidemic.

“It’s all been coming out of the southwest side of Chicago from the southwest border of Mexico. ... Chicago is our gateway.”

Local educators are working to prevent youths from getting addicted to substances in the first place. Ric Frataccia, superintendent of Valparaiso Community Schools, said his district is implementing a pilot program where teachers get to better know and mentor students, so the kids have more adults to turn to when their peers pressure them to use drugs.

“We have a heroin epidemic in this Region,” said Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds.

“It’s not going to be an easy solve. ... It’s going to take partnerships with law enforcement, mental health, education.”

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Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.