In the battle against opioid abuse, Webster County-based task force stands ready

It’s no secret that opioid abuse is a problem. Opioids are pain relievers that are highly addicting, according to treatment counselors.

Lately, there has been a renewed effort to combat their abuse.

Since January, a new task force operating out of Webster County is working to stop opioid abuse not just in the Fort Dodge area, but across north central Iowa. It’s called the North Central Iowa Opioid Task Force.

Related: History of opioid abuse goes back to 1990s

Community and Family Resources helped get the task force started, but it’s comprised of professionals from a variety of fields, including law enforcement, drug abuse treatment and health care.

The north central task force was modeled after one in Story County.

Ben Rasmussen, a prevention specialist with CFR, is a task force member.

“We’ve tried to model our task force after them because they have been successful in their efforts,” Rasmussen said.

Statistics show that opioid abuse is an issue in Webster County.

According to Rasmussen, as of 2016, there have been 17 convictions in Webster County District Court for prescription drug abuse charges.

Between 2014 and 2017, there were 90 admissions to CFR for treatment of opioid abuse in Webster County.

From 2013 to 2016, UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center saw 211 hospital admissions involving opiates.

Sometimes that data doesn’t show all of the opioid abuse, according to Katie Talbot, another CFR prevention specialist who serves on the task force.

“Sometimes, too, if my drug of choice would be meth and second opiates, they’re counting the primary one as meth,” she said.

“The numbers can be off just a little bit because sometimes they go by primary and secondary and then ignore the tertiary as well.”

The Iowa Department of Public Health created a community assessment workbook, in which it analyzes what the communities are doing to combat opioid abuse, what needs to be done, and the level of awareness of the issue within the community.

“They did the community workbook and we decided this was an area we needed to address,” Rasmussen said.

The task force reached out to multiple communities entities to offer them a place in the task force to talk about how opioid abuse is affecting them.

“We reached out to all different areas,” he said. “EMS, fire department, police force, public health, city officials, DHS (Department of Human Services). Kind of anybody we thought would be impacted by this.”

Talbot said CFR has the ability to offer assistance to these agencies that need help.

“We know the issues here, but what, as prevention specialists, treatment professions, can we do to help them in their job?” Talbot said.

The task force puts its members together to talk about what’s going on.

“We provide resources to the community because we have different groups trying to attack the same problem,” Rasmussen said, “and we’re hoping through the establishment of this task force we can bring those groups together so that we can all work as kind of a cohesive unit to address the issues that are at hand and serve the community in the best way that we can.”

When it comes to working at preventing opioid abuse, both Talbot and Rasmussen said it’s very important to get the community educated about the dangers of opioids.

Rasmussen said it starts with making people aware of how dangerous they can be.

“The perception of harm from medications is very low,” he said. “We don’t regularly associate the fact that, ‘This could be dangerous. I really could have an issue with this.’ Especially prescription medications.”

CFR, in youth surveys, has learned that 56 percent of youth are aware that they can get prescription medications from their family or relatives’ medicine cabinets.

It also learned that 16 percent of parents believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal drugs.

“While 16 percent may seem like a low percentage, it’s disheartening because there’s a belief out there that prescription drugs aren’t that dangerous,” Rasmussen said.

It is common for people who are being treated for opioid abuse to trace their addiction back to treatment for an injury.

“It took off from there,” Rasmussen said. “Just being able to address how we’re dealing with pain and how we’re prescribing pain is starting to change.”

Health care providers and pharmacists are doing a much better job of being more aware of how many opioids are being prescribed to a patient, he added.

“Pharmacies are doing a better job of educating how to go about taking those prescriptions,” he said. “There is a push for providers to really try to find other ways to address pain and to really monitor how much of an opioid is something that has to be provided.”

What separates treating opioid abuse from any other type of substance dependency is the need to wean opioid abusers off the drug.

Rasmussen described it as essentially teaching someone’s body that it’s OK to feel pain.

According to Talbot, a common method is medication-assisted treatment. Primary health care providers work with counselors to get the opioid-addict on another medication.

Talbot said there is a connection between mental health and opioid abuse.

“When somebody has chronic pain, generally they’re depressed,” Talbot said. “Opium has a huge euphoric effect. First, it takes away your pain and you feel pretty damn good.”

That’s the upside.

The downside is in the withdrawals.

“Because it does do a change on the chemical structure of the brain,” she said.

Rasmussen described it this way: “It just becomes a vicious cycle.”

“They feed off of each other,” Talbot added.

“I’m depressed, so I use,” Rasmussen said. “And then I use because I’m depressed.”

Treatment gives those suffering from opioid abuse coping mechanisms that are healthier than using an addicting prescription drug.

“After treatment, their mood increases,” Rasmussen said. “Not only am I not abusing substances anymore, but I’m learning how to cope with my issues in a healthy way.”

According to Talbot, the task force may be specifically geared towards combating opioid abuse, but it’s possible that, in the future, it could be used to discuss preventing a range of drug abuses.

Rasmussen agrees. “The people at the table are still the people that need to be at the table, no matter what the issue is.”

Already, Talbot has seen the task force be effective, especially when it comes to forming partnerships.

“The greatest thing I’ve seen come out of this are the relationships developed with the other partners in the community,” she said.

“Whether it’s public health or law enforcement or sheriff or fire, corrections, other health departments, hospitals,” Rasmussen added.

“We have the same goal as preventing,” Talbot added.

“We’re all working on the same thing,” Rasmussen said. “Try to make the community safe and keep everybody safe and educated on different things.”