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Officials, public discuss opioid abuse, possible solutions at community forum

Rockford Register Star - 11/17/2017

Nov. 17--ROCKFORD -- State and local officials discussed potential solutions to the opioid crisis Thursday, and heard from residents who are concerned about access to treatment.

All were unanimous: Opioid addiction must be treated like the disease it is, and more resources are needed to fight it.

"The opioid crisis is the definition of a wicked problem," Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said at the community forum attended by about 200 people. "It has so many factors that lead to it. And really, all those factors had to align at just the right time and create a perfect storm."

Register Star media partner 13 WREX hosted the forum, titled "Hooked: The Opioid Epidemic Hits Home." Evening news anchors Kristin Crowley and Sean Muserallo were moderators. The panel of experts was comprised of Shah, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, Mercyhealth physician Dr. John Pakiela, Rosecrance Harrison campus Medical Director Dr. Raymond Garcia, Rockford Police Chief Dan O'Shea and Amy McCormick, a nurse and mother of a son who is a patient in recovery.

Audience questions -- including those from people watching live on Facebook -- helped direct the forum through a variety of opioid-related topics, including cost and budgeting for treatment, ways to change the public perception of opioid abuse and who is affected by it.

Garcia said opioid addicts as young as 12 years old have come to Rosecrance looking for help. Sanguinetti said she's seen babies who are born addicted during her visits across the state.

O'Shea said opioid addiction in Rockford is seen mostly in white men, but "it affects everybody."

In September, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order that created the Opioid Prevention and Intervention Task Force as part of his $40 million statewide action plan for cutting opioid-related deaths by a third in three years. In October, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a "health emergency" in the U.S.

The $40 million, Sanguinetti said, will be allocated toward education and prevention. She said a 24/7 statewide opioid hotline will be unveiled in the next few weeks.

"For people who need help but don't know where to get it, picking up the phone is a first step," Sanguinetti said.

Samantha Jensen of Rockford lost her mother Carrie Lee to opioid addiction in September. She attended the gathering "wanting to know what the community is doing," she said. "I hope to get more involved."

Jensen said after the discussion that she disagrees with using resources solely for education. Funding for treatment and access to doctors is just as important, she said.

"Drugs are bad -- we all know that," Jensen said. "It's hard convincing people (opioid addiction) is a real disease. People are genetically predisposed to it; more science needs to be out there. We need to allocate funds in a better way."

O'Shea told the crowd that city police try to "diversify tactics as much as we can, but our hands our tied sometimes."

"We don't just arrest people who come in and say, 'I am an addict,' and hand over their stuff," O'Shea said.

At the beginning of the forum, 13 WREX screened a documentary produced by its team that shows three families and survivors struggling with the loss of a loved one through addiction. It also shows life at a recovery home in Crystal Lake.

For the past month, the TV station has been airing a series on the local opioid crisis, in addition to publishing reports in the Register Star. News Director Josh Morgan said Thursday's talk helped move the discussion forward.

"We can tell a story in a newscast," he said, "but rarely in 30 minutes can we have a conversation."

Adam Poulisse: 815-987-1344; apoulisse@rrstar.com; @adampoulisse

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(c)2017 Rockford Register Star, Ill.

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