Washtenaw Health Initiative Opioid Project unifies efforts addressing prevention, addiction, and overdose deaths

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Washtenaw Health Initiative Opioid Project unifies efforts addressing prevention, addiction, and overdose deaths

Ann Arbor, Mich. – Efforts are underway to develop a strategic plan uniting drug-related prevention efforts across Washtenaw County, identifying evidence-based interventions and project partnerships. The Washtenaw Health Initiative Opioid Project focuses on the needs of people addicted to opioids—specifically heroin and prescription pain medications—and their families.

The project brings together experts from community-based nonprofit agencies, safety net clinics, hospitals and health systems, the local public health department, and law enforcement.

“We can’t just arrest our way out of this situation,” says Derrick Jackson, director of Community Engagement at the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office. “As more money is made selling illegal drugs, the possibility of street-level violence increases. With the heroin problem continuing to grow, our concern is that ‘gang type’ behavior will also grow and evolve.”

The project formed in July 2013 as part of the Washtenaw Health Initiative (WHI), a voluntary, community-based collaboration working to improve access to coordinated care for the county’s low-income, uninsured, and Medicaid populations. The strategic plan, set to be unveiled this summer, will comprehensively address the community’s opioid problem across populations, age groups, and geography.

New data from the Washtenaw County Public Health Department, which performs core public health services in the county, provides a picture of the rising opioid problem:

  • Drug-related deaths for Washtenaw County residents increased over 80% between 2000 and 2011.
  • In 2012, drug-related deaths were responsible for more years of life lost than lung and breast cancer, pneumonia, influenza, and HIV combined for Washtenaw County residents. The majority of these deaths involved opioids, both illicit and prescription.
  • Heroin deaths for Washtenaw County residents doubled between 2012 (13) and 2013 (26).
  • In the first half of 2013, there were nearly as many heroin-related emergency department visits (52) at the University of Michigan and Saint Joseph Mercy Hospitals as in all of 2012 (69).
  • The proportion of Washtenaw County middle school students who said they had ever abused painkillers increased 30% between 2010 and 2012 (from 11% to 14%, respectively), according to the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth.

Opioid addiction can cause death and other problems, such as liver and kidney disease, hepatitis, and depression. It can also lead to social challenges in employment, education, and family dynamics. Prevention focuses on avoiding deaths and initial abuse, especially for youth.

Under the leadership of the Washtenaw County Public Health Department, the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, and the Regional Substance Abuse Coordinating Agency, WHI Opioid Project members are now analyzing county-level opioid statistics and will develop a strategy to better prevent opioid overdoses and deaths.

“The WHI Opioid Project’s intensive review, research, and collaboration have brought together key community leaders to systematically address this issue from multiple levels,” says Marci Scalera, project co-chair and director of the Regional Substance Abuse Coordinating Agency, responsible for Lenawee, Livingston and Washtenaw counties. “We have used recommendations from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency for a multi-sector, community response to deal with this growing problem. We continue to refine the strategic plan and invite interested groups to get involved.”

The plan will focus on six areas: physician knowledge of opioid abuse, drug availability, criminal justice and enforcement, individual behaviors, community norms, and environment and policy.

“It is critical that all areas are addressed simultaneously. We cannot only address supply and demand,” says Adreanne Waller, the project’s co-chair and epidemiologist with the Washtenaw County Public Health Department. “We also need to understand cultural and economic factors that have contributed to this epidemic. The strategic plan will stimulate action within the community and identify resources to support new initiatives.”

Community groups that are interested in joining the WHI Opioid Project can contact Adreanne Waller (wallera@ewashtenaw.org) or Marci Scalera (scaleram@ewashtenaw.org) for more information.


The agencies currently involved in the Washtenaw Health Initiative Opioid Project include: Catholic Social Services,  Center for Healthcare Research & Transformation, Dawn Farm, Home of New Vision, HIV/AIDS Resource Center, Livingston and Washtenaw Narcotics Enforcement Team, Regional Substance Abuse Coordinating Agency, Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital, University of Michigan School of Nursing and Department of Psychiatry,  Washtenaw Health Initiative, Washtenaw Community Health Organization, Washtenaw County Public Health, and the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office.