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Q&A with Douglas Huntsinger, Executive Director for Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement and Chairman of the Indiana Commission to Combat Drug Abuse

Jun 17, 2022

Douglas Huntsinger is the executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement and chairman of the Indiana Commission to Combat Drug Abuse. As a senior adviser to Gov. Eric J. Holcomb and a member of his cabinet, Huntsinger oversees the coordination of the governor’s Next Level Recovery initiative, aligning and focusing Indiana’s response to the drug crisis. He also serves as a member of the Justice Reinvestment Advisory Council and the governor’s Health Workforce Council.

Interact for Health: As we emerge from the pandemic, what is your top priority?

Huntsinger: One of the silver linings of the pandemic was the advancements in telehealth. Using technology and virtual meeting platforms, practitioners, counselors and peers can connect with their patients through the touch of a screen.

Just as important as connection, however, is access. We’ve spent the last five years building a statewide treatment and recovery infrastructure, strategically placing intervention points for maximum impact. But we must make it easier for individuals to find personalized care that is most appropriate for them or a loved one. I’ve heard many stories, some from Hoosiers who even work in the treatment field, and they tell me the difficulty of navigating the system. If those with knowledge of the system struggle to find appropriate care, how can we expect someone with little to no understanding to do the same?

Later this year, we’ll unveil a new tool to help Hoosiers search for and compare addiction treatment facilities to find personalized, high-quality treatment for themselves or a loved one. This will transform the way individuals seek care, providers benchmark and improve quality, and the state allocates critical treatment resources.

Interact for Health: In December, Indiana installed a naloxone vending machine at the St. Joseph County Jail in South Bend and announced that 18 more machines would be put in place around the state. What progress have you made in installing the machines and what impact are they having?

Huntsinger: Naloxone vending machines are having a tremendous impact in high-traffic, high-need areas across our state. Indiana’s first naloxone vending machine at the St. Joseph County Jail was completely emptied within the first weekend, and we’ve seen a similar response as we’ve placed more machines statewide.

In addition to our 19 vending machines, we’re placing 430 NaloxBoxes statewide. These hard acrylic boxes are mounted to exterior walls and contain six to eight doses of naloxone, instructions for use, and treatment referral cards. Similar to vending machines, NaloxBoxes provide 24/7 access to naloxone and are an effective means of expanding access to free life-saving naloxone.

Interact for Health: Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now the leading cause of overdose deaths nationwide. What harm reduction efforts has Indiana adopted to address the problem?

Huntsinger: In line with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020 and the scourge of illicit fentanyl in the market, we’ve taken an unprecedented harm reduction approach to address the drug epidemic.

In November 2021, we deployed 10 harm reduction street outreach teams to areas at risk of high overdose rates. These teams meet people where they’re at and provide them with the necessary tools to stay alive, including naloxone, fentanyl test strips and referrals to substance use treatment.

Harm reduction and syringe service programs are also stationed throughout the state and managed by local health departments. These programs provide access and linkage to critical resources to individuals while supporting the overall health of the community.

Through our partnership with Overdose Lifeline, we’ve also expanded layperson access to naloxone and fentanyl test strips.

Interact for Health: How can foundations and community-based coalitions and organizations help address substance use and abuse?

Huntsinger: This spring we awarded 21 communities with Community Coordination Grants to support the development and capacity building of community coordination focused on substance use treatment and recovery. Recipients are using these dollars to fund coordinator positions to manage and organize initiatives and meetings, community needs assessments and action plans, and/or the development and support of local coalitions and collaborations.

Philanthropy is also filling a need in our communities. Many philanthropic organizations across the state are serving as conveners, fiscal agents and private funders, or are even implementing programs on their own. Every individual has a role to play in combatting the drug epidemic and making Indiana a better place for all Hoosiers.

Interact for Health: How is Indiana working with non-government agencies to enhance community-based responses to the opioid epidemic?

Huntsinger: Much of the work to prevent substance use and to support individuals in recovery is best accomplished at the local level. In collaboration with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration Division of Mental Health and Addiction, we are in the early stages of developing a menu of prevention, treatment and recovery supports communities should have in place depending on their size, structure and needs to best serve their residents.

Indiana’s 92 counties look different, are in varying phases of development, and have unique needs. Using a tiered framework, we’ll educate cities, towns, counties and regions on what resources should be available within their locality. This will help inform future funding decisions and determine the next steps communities should consider when developing or expanding their treatment and recovery infrastructure.

Interact for Health: What is the key to making these partnerships work effectively?

Huntsinger: Trust and communication. Where we see successful collaboration is in communities that have united around a common strategy, and there’s a high level of trust among the collaborators. We encourage communities to take a multi-disciplinary approach, convening providers, law enforcement, advocates and government officials to solve the unique needs of their population.

Interact for Health: What gives you hope?

Huntsinger: My title summarizes our three-pronged framework to attacking the drug epidemic through prevention, treatment and enforcement, but what it leaves out is the part that makes it all worth it: people in recovery. I frequently interact with Hoosiers in all different stages of recovery — some with just one month under their belt living in one of our certified recovery residences, others celebrating decades of sobriety and giving back as peer recovery coaches.

As we continue to reach record rates of overdose deaths and confront the surge of illicit fentanyl, it can be easy to get caught up in our challenges. But then I remember why we do the work we do. These individuals, who once sought help themselves and, in turn, rebuilt their own lives, are now making incredible strides to save lives in their own neighborhoods and relay hope to others that recovery is possible.

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