Interact for Health

Q&A: Indiana task force battles heroin epidemic

(Mar 14th, 2016)

Indiana State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams is a member of Gov. Mike Pence's Task Force on Drug Enforcement, Treatment and Prevention, which was convened in 2015 to identify ways to combat the state's opioid and heroin misuse epidemic. Adams says that each community faces its own unique challenges and strengths in addressing substance use disorders. The task force, he says, aims to take those best practices and make them applicable to other areas. Adams spoke with Interact for Health to discuss the successes and lessons learned from the task force.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about the Governor's Task Force on Drug Enforcement, Treatment and Prevention and its goals?

Jerome Adams: The philosophy of the task force was, "What can we do as members of the executive branch to help combat this opioid epidemic?" It's made up of about two dozen members who represent health, social services, law enforcement, the legislature, the judicial system, department of corrections and community leaders. So we wanted to engage the community, but we also wanted to bring in all those folks who are directly reporting to the governor to hear from folks in the community. We meet monthly to develop strategies to combat the drug problem as it's playing out in Indiana.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned from working with the task force?

Adams: What we've learned is that communities are engaging in the dialogue about addiction problems and that while there are many similarities, there are also many differences both in terms of how communities are suffering, which substances they're suffering from and their capacity to respond. For instance, you have some places with a strong not-for-profit presence, other places are working through the school system, and other places have got diversion programs set up through the courts. So we learned that there are good things going on. We just need to figure out how we can augment them and decrease barriers, as well as how we can share successes in one place with other places. The governor's leadership is forcing agencies to assess what programs are needed and to ensure that existing programs are properly addressing today's addiction challenges.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of the task force are you most proud of?

Adams: There's been considerable legislative interest and effort in approving new laws to look at enhanced penalties for drug dealers, establish a new commission for combatting drug misuse, providing expanded availability of naloxone and a Good Samaritan law protecting those who are reporting an overdose. It's been tremendous to be able to hear from the community through this task force -- with legislators there who are actively involved in passing the laws and putting them into effect -- and then following up with meaningful policy. This is an immediate feedback loop where monthly we're hearing what's working and what's not.

Interact for Health: What about your work is most fulfilling?

Adams: Just knowing that we really can make a difference, both by sharing the stories and by taking the feedback from individuals directly to the decision makers. Having that dialogue has really been fulfilling to me. I think one of the problems is that folks have a hard time putting a face on drug addiction if they haven't personally suffered it, and it's easy to write people off and say, "Well this is your own fault." That is until you hear someone come in and talk about how they were functional and had a good job and then got hurt and then got addicted to prescription opioids. Then those got taken away, and they switched over to heroin. You really realize, "Wow that could have been me, that could have been somebody who I cared about."