The Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress has helped neighboring Jackson and Jennings counties secure grant funding to assess communitywide responses in those counties to combat substance use disorder to lay the foundation of future efforts.
The grant, issued by the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, has provided $100,000 in funding to each county to do the groundwork for an initial community assessment of what is needed to strengthen their responses to the nation’s drug crisis, said ASAP Executive Director Sherri Jewett. Officials are expected to issue a report on their findings by the end of June.
The grant funding comes as officials in Jackson and Jennings counties say in some ways, the crisis is getting worse — and as overdose deaths in Bartholomew County soar to their highest levels on record driven by a more dangerous drug supply and the increasing prevalence of deadly fentanyl.
“As part of our review for grant opportunities here in Bartholomew County, we became aware of the significance of the substance use issue in both of those counties,” Jewett said. “And neither one of those counties has a lot of infrastructure in place to try to address substance use problems within their community. … Our goal was to really find a home in those communities that could own the task and going forward could help build the community efforts.”
In Jackson County — where officials said the drug crisis “is as big if not bigger” than in Bartholomew County — officials hope to build a program modeled after ASAP, called the Seymour and Jackson County Recovery Program.
Launched in 2017, ASAP is a communitywide response to address substance use disorder in Bartholomew County. ASAP was formed through a partnership between the Columbus and Bartholomew County governments and Columbus Regional Health.
The grant will help Jackson County “figure out what exists, what doesn’t exist or what needs to exist and how to get the all the players into the same room to start working toward the solution,” said Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson, who has been working with ASAP on the issue.
“It’s the same (problem) nationwide. We just may not have as many resources dedicated to it as a bigger community,” Nicholson said.
So far, the city of Seymour has used the grant money to hire two people to conduct an assessment of the strengths and gaps in Jackson County’s efforts to combat the crisis and build the new program — Steve Sharer, who serves as program coordinator, and Kimberly Glaze, who serves as director of program development.
“We’re about six months into our work,” Sharer said. “We’re doing a community assessment. I would say we are about 60% completed with that in just terms of raw data. Our next step is, as part of the grant, (to establish) a steering committee that will help advise and lead us forward.”
The committee is expected to come up with some recommendations on what it thinks needs to happen in the community, including strengths and gaps, Sharer said.
In Jennings County, the grant money has been used to create a position based out of Ascension St. Vincent Jennings Hospital in North Vernon to assess the crisis, officials said.
Christina Crank, the hospital’s administrator, was unavailable for comment on the new position.
The Jennings County Council, for its part, hopes the county can permanently fund this position, according to the minutes of the council’s August meeting.
The assessments are expected to help guide officials in both counties on how to spend their share of nationwide settlements with a major pharmaceutical manufacturer and the nation’s three largest drug distributors over their role in the opioid addiction crisis, Jewett said.
Jackson County will get about $1.66 million in settlement funds over the course of the next 16 years, according to the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. Of that, about $1.26 million must be used for drug abatement efforts, while the remaining $396,864 does not have any restrictions on its use.
Jennings County, for its part, will receive about $968,813 over the same time period, including $230,665 that does not have any restrictions on its use.
The first checks are expected to go out this year and continue through 2038, state officials said in August.
The funds are part of $26 billion in settlements with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson to resolve about 3,000 lawsuits from state and local governments that sought to hold the companies liable for the opioid epidemic, The Associated Press reported.
Jackson County is expected to receive $269,980 in drug abatement funds and $65,558 in unrestricted funds this year, while Jennings County is expected to receive $156,917 in drug abatement funds and $38,104 in unrestricted funds, according to state records.
“These opioid dollars are starting to flow into these counties, and the county governments are who are tasked with deciding how to spend those dollars,” Jewett said. “So the other goal from our perspective to assist those counties in this assessment was so that the communities could have good information to decide what’s the best way to spend those monies that are coming into our county.”
The efforts in Jackson and Jennings counties come as U.S. drug overdoses soar to record highs. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated more than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, setting another tragic record in the nation’s escalating overdose epidemic, according to wire reports.
The provisional 2021 total translates to roughly one U.S. overdose death every 5 minutes. It marked a 15% increase from the previous record, set the year before. The CDC reviews death certificates and then makes an estimate to account for delayed and incomplete reporting.
U.S. overdose deaths have risen most years for more than two decades. The increase began in the 1990s with overdoses involving opioid painkillers, followed by waves of death by other opioids like heroin and — most recently — illicit fentanyl.
Last year, overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed 71,000, up 23% from the year before. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is more potent than heroin and has largely been blamed for the historic rise in U.S. overdose deaths.
At least 171 residents of Jackson and Jennings counties died from drug overdoses from January 2016 to this past August, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
Last year, 21 Jackson County residents died from drug overdoses, the highest annual total since at least 2016, according to provisional figures from the Indiana Department of Health.
At least 10 Jennings County residents died from overdoses last year, two deaths shy of the highest total on record since 2016.
Based on population, Jackson and Jennings counties both had higher per capita overdose death rates than Bartholomew County in 2021, according to state records.
‘A huge problem everywhere’
At the same time, the deepening drug crisis has kept law enforcement, first responders and the court system busy in the two counties.
As of Friday morning, 1 in 353 adults in Jackson and Jennings counties were in jail on charges related to substance use, including 70 of 128 inmates in the Jennings County Jail and 88 of 188 inmates in the Jackson County Jail, according to county records and U.S. Census Bureau population estimates.
Law enforcement officials in Jennings County estimated 80% of crime in the county is related to substance use in one way or another.
Overdoses also have resulted in 1,695 emergency room visits in both counties, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
And some residents of Jackson and Jennings counties have sought treatment in Bartholomew County, officials said. They have accounted for nearly 10% of all patients seen by Columbus Regional Health’s Treatment and Support Center this year.
“It’s a huge problem everywhere,” said Chief Deputy Dave Turner of the Jennings County Sheriff’s Department. “It’s not limited to one area.”
But as long as drugs continue to flow into the United States and the Columbus area, Turner said, “We’re going to be playing chase and catchup for the next several years.”