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Task force gets grim view of Indiana's drug problem

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Drug addiction has long been a problem in Northwest Indiana.

INDIANAPOLIS | Indiana sorely lacks the treatment infrastructure and trained personnel needed to wean hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers off their drug addictions and remediate their often underlying mental health problems.

That's the blunt message Dr. Andy Chambers, of Indianapolis' Midtown Community Mental Health and Addiction Clinic, delivered Wednesday at the first meeting of Gov. Mike Pence's Task Force on Drug Enforcement, Treatment and Prevention.

Chambers told the panel of state officials, health professionals and law enforcement that Indiana repeatedly has failed to invest in drug treatment and mental health care, leaving too few clinics spread across the state and hardly any practitioners to meet Hoosier needs.

For example, he said Indiana University, the sole facility training psychiatrists, only graduates about six a year and just one typically specializes in addiction. Moreover, he noted, half the state's practicing psychiatrists are within 10 years of retirement.

"Even if we had more money going to treatment, there's no place for people to go for treatment," Chambers said. "We don't have the workforce, and we don't have the infrastructure."

Chambers urged the panel to recommend to the Republican governor major investments toward long-term solutions, rather than a short-term fix that satisfies the needs of a four-year election cycle but does little to address addiction in Indiana.

State Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, a former county sheriff and task force member, agreed that more money, training and facilities are needed.

"If we're ever going to have any hopes of addressing this issue, of getting a grip on it and properly addressing it, we're going to have to look for money," Arnold said. "If we can't come up with it we're not going to make much headway."

However, John Hill, Pence's deputy chief of staff for public safety and task force co-chairman, said he only plans to initially recommend the governor seek greater flexibility to use existing federal health funds for drug treatment, and to encourage state agencies to promote more widespread use of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug.

Hill said he remains undecided on how Indiana should spend the $30 million set aside in April by the Republican-controlled Legislature to improve mental health and drug treatment in the state over the next two years.

Indiana's drug problems made national headlines earlier this year after Scott County experienced an HIV outbreak tied to shared needles used to inject prescription painkillers that infected more than 180 Hoosiers.

Dr. Tim Kelly, of Indianapolis' Community Health Network, told the task force that Scott County is not that unusual.

Some 1 in 4 Hoosier children now grow up in a home with a drug-addicted adult, putting the children at immediate risk of harm and also making the children more likely to experiment with drugs and possibly become addicted themselves, he said.

Hendricks County Sheriff Brett Clark admitted, "You can't arrest your way out of this problem," least of all because the county must provide health care to jail inmates.

In some Indiana counties, law enforcement and the judicial system recently have turned to drug courts to provide intensive supervision and assistance for drug users who commit crimes in connection with their addictions.

But those services only are available in counties with a judge willing to put in the extra time required to manage a drug court program and local officials willing to pay for one.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter, a member of the governor's drug task force, said he would love for Lake County to operate a drug court, but he acknowledged the county courts already are overworked and have limited resources.

Carter said besides drug users, Lake County also suffers from increased gang violence connected to drugs as gang members battle over who can sell where — especially as more Hoosiers view marijuana as harmless given its legalization in other states.

The governor's task force is slated to meet again on Oct. 16 in Evansville and Nov. 19 in South Bend prior to submitting its final recommendations to Pence ahead of the 2016 legislative session that begins in January.

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