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updated: 4/17/2014 2:52 PM

'Epidemic' of heroin addiction facing state, house committee hears

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Members of the recently formed Illinois House Task Force on Heroin spent more than three hours in Arlington Heights Thursday morning hearing testimony about treatment and prevention for what has been called an epidemic sweeping the state.

Five members of the 39-member committee -- state Reps. Dan Brady, David Harris, Lou Lang, Michelle Mussman and Mike McAuliffe -- attended the hearing, and said the testimony would be passed on to the rest of their committee.

This was the second of four meetings being held around Illinois to get ideas for legislative fixes that might help stem the growing tide of heroin addiction, overdose and death in Illinois.

"This is a plague that is spreading," said Harris, of Arlington Heights.

Arlington Heights Police Sgt. Richard Sperando testified that in the past three years, police have responded to 27 heroin overdoses that resulted in seven deaths. He said overdoses are most common in young adults in their 20s, but the age ranged from 19 to 50.

While officials agreed the problem is clear, the rest of the hearing focused on possible solutions that would help bolster prevention and treatment.

"We have not had any luck on the supply side. You cannot enforce or arrest your way out of this problem," said Paul Getzendanner, clinical supervisor at the Gateway Foundation, a treatment center in Chicago and the suburbs.

Getzendanner said he believes there are problems with the Illinois Parity law, which he said can allow insurance companies to turn people away from heroin treatment programs because their addiction is not considered an immediate threat to their life.

He also brought up problems with funding treatment for clients who can't afford it.

"There simply are not enough beds," he said. "Some providers have been driven out of business because of lack of funding."

Heroin has overtaken alcohol as the drug of choice for patients coming into Rosecrance Treatment Center in Rockford, said Thomas Wright, chief medical officer.

"Heroin morbidity and mortality are at an epidemic level here in Illinois," he said. "Waiting another day can be fatal, which is devastating for these families."

Craig Stallings, administrator of residential services at Rosecrance, said there can is an average 3- to 6-week wait for residential treatment at the facility.

Another topic of discussion was the idea of equipping all first responders, including police officers, with overdose-preventing medications and training on how to use them.

Sperando said the main obstacle to implementing that is funding and training.

Some drugs used to stem heroin addiction and stop an overdose are not covered by Medicaid and too expensive for many people to buy on their own, officials said.

Representatives from the Robert Crown Center for Health Education said the importance of education, for students as early as middle school, is critical -- to teach not just that drugs are bad, but why and how addiction impacts their lives.

As the task force moves forward, representatives said they may ask certain experts to testify again or provide more information toward helping formulate legislative solutions to the heroin crisis.

"This task force intends to start eating away at this problem and this testimony has been very helpful in the processes," said Chairman Lang.

The next meeting of the task force will be at 11 a.m. on April 24 at Addison Village Hall.

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