Candidates: DuPage must do more to fight heroin
DuPage is spending $100,000 this year to combat the opioid crisis, but candidates in one county board race say more needs to be done.
The opioid epidemic has become a key issue in District 4, where four candidates will face off Nov. 6 for two seats on the county board representing an area that includes all or parts of Addison, Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, Glen Ellyn, Glendale Heights, Lisle, Lombard, Wheaton and Winfield.
The candidates are Republican incumbent Grant Eckhoff, GOP newcomer Christopher Zaruba and Democratic newcomers Hadiya Afzal and Mary FitzGerald Ozog.
During recent endorsement sessions with the Daily Herald, the candidates talked about DuPage's response to the rising death toll from overdoses across the suburbs. In 2017, the county had 95 confirmed opioid-related deaths, the same number as 2016.
The candidates said they support a decision to spend $100,000 this year to implement two projects identified by the Heroin Opioid Prevention and Education task force, a joint operation of the county board and county health department.
Half the money was used to develop a "substance use treatment navigation" system to help individuals seeking treatment for opioid use disorder.
The rest helped pay for a new specialty drug court for first-time offenders.
Still, Zaruba and Ozog said DuPage should be spending more to fight heroin.
"I would definitely like to see more than $100,000 allocated," said Ozog, a substitute teacher from Glen Ellyn who serves on the Glenbard High School District 87 school board. "That seems like a very small amount considering the crisis nature of this situation."
Zaruba said the $100,000 the county is planning to spending in 2019 is "a drop in the bucket."
"It's not enough," said Zaruba, a Wheaton attorney. "I do think there needs to be more money allocated."
Afzal, meanwhile, said she likes the approach the county is taking.
"I think the county is actually moving in the right direction," said Afzal, who is a DePaul University student from Glen Ellyn. "They recognize the problem, and they're working with other counties to help address the issue."
However, she said, county officials "need to take steps to ensure that we get consistent funding to continue the programs."
Eckhoff, who serves on the HOPE task force, said the county must take multiple steps, including educating the public, supporting the DuPage Narcan Program, expanding a prescription drop box system and continuing a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies.
In addition, he said, the county needs to find innovative ways to treat individuals who have become addicted.
One of the programs DuPage funded this year -- a substance use treatment navigation system -- will help ensure that a partnership of providers is available to treat substance use as a medical condition. It also will provide an expansion of services to quickly and effectively link individuals to the most appropriate level treatment when they are looking for help.
Eckhoff said one goal of the task force is to get area hospitals to set aside some beds for long-term treatment care.
"We're going to need beds," sad Eckhoff, an attorney from Wheaton who has served on the county board since 2002. "And there's no way the county is going to be able to pay for all of this."
Ozog said she believes additional money will be needed because private health insurance pays more per bed per day than Medicaid.
"So the need for people who are either underinsured or don't have private insurance coverage for these situations is out there," Ozog said. "Where do you get funding for that sort of thing?
"I don't have answers," she said. "But I think that starting with higher than a $100,000 budget allocation toward this specific initiative is at least a start."