Task force targets drug deaths in Westmoreland County

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

The epidemic of drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland County is a community problem, and it will take a comprehensive plan to reduce the number by 25 percent over the next few years, said members of the Westmoreland County Drug Task Force.

The panel held its first meeting on Tuesday in Lakeview Lounge in Hempfield to detail a strategy to reduce the number of drug-related deaths, which hit 100 from January 2012 through March, Coroner Ken Bacha said.

Bacha expects the number in 2013 to break last year's record of 78 overdose deaths. The coroner's office has investigated 72 fatal overdoses this year.

Since 2002, 615 people have died of drug overdoses in the county, Bacha said. The number probably is higher because some may have died in the nearest hospital, usually in an adjoining county.

To emphasize the unprecedented toll, Bacha stacked 22 body bags in the front of the podium to represent the number of deaths in 2002. Then two deputies tossed 78 more bags onto the floor to illustrate the increase in 2012.

The task force was created to stop the upward trend and expand access to treatment programs described as inadequate to stem the surge in drug addiction.

Representatives of law enforcement, the courts, service providers, treatment specialists, educators and recovering addicts attended the meeting.

Dick Dickhert, a retired Elliott Co. executive, will head the force with the goal of reducing the number of deaths by 25 percent over the next three to four years. Each of four subcommittees will study a different aspect of the problem, he said. The subcommittees will come up with recommendations and will be required to implement those changes.

“One of the challenges ... we're going to face ... we need to put mission before self, mission before our organization,” Dickhert said.

Dirk Matson, director of Human Services for the county, said the most disturbing problem he found when he took the job 10 months ago was the lack of a comprehensive plan.

“Our job as a task force is to create change,” he said. “This task force will only work if we rise above our emotions and come up with collective solutions.”

Matson said the region that includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky is the 11th worst in the nation for overdose deaths.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County, said the increase in addiction is a result of overprescription of pain medication such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, which is four times more than 1999. He said enough prescription pain medications were manufactured in the United States in 2010 to medicate every American adult 24 hours a day for a month.

“We need to treat pain, but there's been a cost to that,” and that has been an increase in addiction, he said.

“It's a family disease, a community disease,” Capretto said.

More heroin is available in Westmoreland County and Western Pennsylvania than ever before, he said, and “It's going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Our charge here is to save lives, to set aside any personal agenda,” said attorney Vince Quatrini, president of the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, which supports the initiative.

Betty Gaul, special projects director of Southwest Behavioral Health in Monessen, oversaw a root-cause analysis of the epidemic for the task force. She examined 100 cases to develop a profile of the victims. Among her findings:

• 68 percent were male.

• 97 percent were white, 2 percent were black, 1 percent were Hispanic.

• Victims ranged in age from 15 to 70.

• 65 of the 100 victims had faced drug-related charges. At least 58 percent were jailed at least once; 21 percent were imprisoned four or more times.

• 55 had mental health issues as well as substance abuse issues.

• 93 percent had been prescribed medications for physical ailments, 93 percent took medications for mental health issues, and 24 percent were prescribed medication for drug-related issues.

“Each of these numbers was an individual,” Gaul told the audience. “They had mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers and many people who still miss them greatly.”

Richard Gazarik a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or atrgazarik@tribweb.com.

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