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A group consisting of representatives of Northwest Indiana law enforcement agencies, community organizations and churches has formed to try to tackle one of the prevailing issues of our time.

The Opioid Working Group meets monthly to discuss how to solve the opioid epidemic, which takes the lives of an average of 115 Americans each day and several Northwest Indiana residents a month.

"It's not an urban problem. It's not a rural problem. It's something that touches all of us," North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan said.

"What we're trying to do is very simply bring all the communities together, inventory our assets and pull together to be able to help people."

The Opioid Working Group, which has about 68 members and started in April, is auditing the treatment options available in Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Newton and Jasper counties, so it can create a centralized database and point contact for people looking for help with substance abuse disorder. The organization is part of the Northwest Indiana Information Sharing and Security Alliance.

The group also has representation from the health care, education and drug treatment sectors, and is looking to recruit more members, particularly those from LaPorte, Newton and Jasper counties.

"This has been unlike any epidemic in the past 25 years," said Bishop Tavis Grant, of Greater First Baptist Church in East Chicago, who had the idea for the Opioid Working Group.

"People are overdosing every day, and they're overdosing in clusters. It's a systemic epidemic that is just grinding and eating lives up every day, and people are tired and want to do something about it."

He often has people walk into his church looking for help from opioid addiction. He doesn't know where to send them.

For many, fight is a personal crusade

Many of the group members have had family members who were addicted to opioids. Grant's sister was addicted to heroin for 20 years.

"It has taken its toll on this family," he said. "That's the personal side, the skin in the game, seeing how this robbed us as a family of the best years of our sister's life. At this point, she's clean, she's stable, and every day she's clean is a day we get back."

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Northwest Indiana had a record number of drug overdoses last year, most of them from opioids, including fentanyl, a particularly dangerous painkiller that is often mixed in with heroin. In 2017, Lake County had 196 drug overdose deaths, Porter County had 50 and LaPorte County had 26 (compared to 120, 34 and 32, respectively, the year before).

At a recent meeting, the group discussed how it could get grant funding, insurance obstacles to drug treatment and transportation barriers for people trying to get help. The individuals broke up into subcommittees that touched on prevention, treatment and faith-based initiatives, among other topics.

"It's an increasingly urgent problem, and I think that a lot of people are really starting to focus in, and their ears are perking up that this is something we need to address," said Cara Jones, the United Against Opioids coordinator for United Way of Porter County.

"A lot of people are doing work in this area. Our goal is not to redo that work. Our goal is to identify who's doing what and find out how we can help make connections to do collaborative work that has a greater impact."

The group's main objective: saving lives.

"You look into the eyes of a family that loses a child or loses someone, and these meetings are going to be vital," Mrvan said. "Because very often people don't know where to turn."

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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.