LaPorte County opioid study sets stage for action

Josh Vest, director of the Center for Health Policy at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, talks Thursday morning about getting LaPorte County residents access to treatment for opioid abuse. The Healthcare Foundation of LaPorte funded the study Vest's team conducted.

WESTVILLE — LaPorte County's dire numbers on opioid abuse have been put together in a new study aimed at giving the county's leaders data to help decide how to address the problem.

LaPorte County's substance abuse treatment population is predominantly white men between ages 25 and 34, according to the study, and opioid use accounts for more than half of all admissions for substance abuse treatment, according to the study by the Center for Health Policy at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

The report was released Thursday morning during a conference at Purdue University Northwest. The Healthcare Foundation of LaPorte funded the study, along with a grant from the Indiana Network for the Prevention and Treatment of Opioid Addiction.

Harold Kooreman, one of the study's authors, said LaPorte County saw a 137-percent increase in the number seeking treatment for opioid abuse between 2010 and 2017.

Injection drug use has risen 188 percent since 2010, he said.

"Drug overdoses are now responsible for more deaths nationally than car crashes," Kooreman said.

Dr. Jennifer Walthall, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said she carries naloxone in her car because she's more likely to encounter a drug overdose than someone having a heart attack.

Between 2011 and 2015, LaPorte County saw 48.4 opioid overdoses per 100,000 people, higher than the state average, Kooreman said. And because death certificates don't always indicate which drug caused an overdose, that number might be low.

Walthall said the Healthy Indiana Plan is now moving toward coverage for chiropractic care and other alternative treatments for persistent pain that might take longer than a prescription drug to provide relief for pain but without the potential for addiction.

Another part of the study included a survey of residents that indicated a need for additional treatment.

"We need more of everything is kind of the idea that's out there," said Joshua Vest, one of the study's authors.

LaPorte County is noticeably lacking treatment for detoxification, he said.

Indiana legislators this year passed a law that will establish treatment options within an hour's drive of each Hoosier.

The Healthcare Foundation of LaPorte funds a Swanson Center program that transports substance abusers to detox treatment in Merrillville.

"Having to get in that car and drive an hour to another county for treatment, I can understand that's a barrier," Vest said.

But Vest said he also sees the benefit of moving a substance abuser to a different environment.

Vest recommended the county choose or establish an entity to coordinate a variety of programs addressing opioid abuse.

"Don't think you're starting from ground zero, because you're not," said Kris Pate, executive director of United Way of LaPorte County. The United Way did a thorough look at community issues, including substance abuse, to determine where to focus resources, she said.

Maria Fruth, executive director of the Healthcare Foundation of LaPorte, said her board is looking at the study and working on strategic planning next week to determine next steps.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.