Federal official, DuPage leaders discuss fighting opioid addiction

A high-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was in Wheaton Wednesday to discuss how to slow the tide of deaths attributed to legally prescribed opioid pain medications.

The number of deaths attributed to such medicine has tripled since 1999 and the number of Americans addicted to opioids has climbed dramatically, said Eric Hargan, the department's deputy secretary.

Hargan met with Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, Coroner Richard Jorgensen and law enforcement officials to discuss how to address the problem locally and nationally.

"Twenty years ago, the medical community said (opioid medications) are less addictive than we originally thought, so there was not as much danger in prescribing so many opioids," Hargan said.

"That led to a rising tide of opioid prescriptions because you do want to ease pain," he said. "You back into these areas with the best of intentions, but in many cases, we're going to need to find a very thoughtful way of getting ourselves in a situation where we're not pushing on the gas pedal and creating, inadvertently, an opioid crisis on the licit side."

It's a tricky proposition, Hargan said, because officials want to make sure any guidelines for prescription practices don't inadvertently lead to a rise in people accessing illicit drugs.

Hargan said the average life span of Americans has decreased in each of the past two years because of the rise in opioid overdoses. He said President Donald Trump is "personally committed to turning this thing around."

Jorgensen said 95 people died of opioid overdoses in both 2016 and 2017 in DuPage County.

Locally, Berlin said the feds can help by continuing to pump more money into rehabilitation programs and services.

"When we're talking about users and addicts and people who need treatment, we realize that we need a different approach. Arrest, prosecution and incarceration isn't the way to go for those people," Berlin said. "We're hoping to get the resources to expand treatment and to expand our drug court, which has been incredibly successful. If we're able to do that, that makes a huge difference."

He said the effects snowball as addicts become productive members of society and crime decreases.

"Everyone has a stake in it," Berlin said.

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