DuPage County set an unwelcome record in 2013 with 46 heroin-related deaths.
In response, several Republican lawmakers and DuPage County officials on Thursday unveiled proposed legislation they hope will ensure that record is never broken.
The package, scheduled to be introduced piecemeal next month in Springfield, first calls for repurposing the former, 40-bed, DuPage County Youth Home in Wheaton as a treatment facility. It also recommends new reporting requirements for coroners and medical examiners across the state and extending the sunset date to 2022 for Illinois' RICO statutes, allowing prosecutors to go after high-ranking gang leaders and use gang-siezed assets to fund substance-abuse treatment programs.
"Right now we are in ground zero of heroin abuse. This is DuPage County, Illinois," said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. "We're going to do everything we can possibly do to stop this epidemic, educate families and save lives."
State Rep. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst will propose the legislation. He said a key component would include a partnership among state, county and department of correction officials to repurpose the youth home.
Doing so, however, likely would require amending an agreement between the county and St. Joseph Academy, a school that helps young people with severe behavioral, emotional and learning disorders.
The academy is in the middle of a four-year deal in which it agreed to pay DuPage a total of $560,000 over four years to rent about 14,000 square feet at the facility.
Reboletti did not address how or if his plan would affect that agreement.
"What we would do is call it a last chance program where we would work with all the partners and the chief judge to find those individuals who would otherwise be going to prison and operate that with a treatment-based operational mentality," Reboletti said.
To avoid dumping an unfunded mandate on the county, he also proposed a 7 percent tax on medical marijuana to fund the facility.
The package also includes legislation to enhance penalties for "doctor shopping" by requiring patients to report whether they have received the same or similar pain killers from health care providers within a specified time frame.
Reboletti said a separate bill would require coroners to track and report the number of drug deaths to the state.
"I think we underreport the number of deaths in the state," he said. "And we do know, especially among young people, that drug overdoses eclipse deaths caused by vehicles."
DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said he's encouraged there have been no heroin-reated deaths in the first six weeks of the year.
Rep. Sandy Pihos, of Glen Ellyn, commended DuPage County for allocating $100,000 for heroin prevention education and awareness efforts that she believes could be emulated by the state.
"The bill creates an educational initiative to promote the 'Good Samaritan' law, which protects people from prosecution for reporting an overdose," Pihos said. "An additional bill calls on the Department of Human Services to create and distribute pamphlets to educate holders of opiate prescriptions about the dangers to children and teens gaining access to medications."
DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin has said eliminating the heroin epidemic is one of his top priorities and he knows it will be an uphill fight.
"Heroin use in DuPage County and across the state has hit epidemic proportions resulting in nearly one death per week last year," Berlin said. "It is a relentless killer that, with each use, reduces a user's chance of survival."
Chris Nybo, who is challenging Reboletti for the open 24th Senate District seat in next month's Republican primary, also applauded the bills.
"It really sounds like a great package of bills," Nybo said. "It sounds like something I would have been in the room supporting as well if the Democrats had not redistricted me out of the General Assembly."