ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Posing a continuous threat both nationally and here in Alaska, officials in multiple different areas are working to combat opioids, and now have a new plan for the next five years describing how that will be done.
Drug overdose deaths hit the highest level ever recorded in the United States last year, with an estimated 200 people dying per day, and according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, much of that was from opioids.
Here in Alaska, between 2010 and 2017, 623 opioid overdose deaths were reported in Alaska, a number representing a 77 percent increase.
Now, in Alaska, the Department of Health and Social Services unveiled a new action plan to address the epidemic, which was declared an emergency by President Donald Trump.
The plan itself, titled the 2018-2022 Statewide Opioid Action Plan, reflects what the DHSS commissioner called "an Alaska grown, ground-up approach."
Andy Jones, the Director of the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, said that the plan, though it covers the next five years, isn't set in stone.
"It's a living document. The plan is a living document," Jones said. "We have to be flexible in our planning, because trends in drug use are flexible, they change, so we have to as well."
Another thing differentiating the plan to tackle the opioid epidemic from what Alaska has been doing in the past, is feedback. The plan was built on feedback from the community, Jones said, with the hope of being more effective.
In the plan, six goals were laid bare that officials hope to achieve in order to improve prevention, treatment, recovery, and public safety when it comes to the opioid epidemic.
The first goal is to unite Alaskans and change the message on how opioids should be discussed, from an almost taboo subject, to a less stigmatized, and thus more relatable mental and physical affliction.
The second goal will aim to better integrate different services that respond to opioid issues, such as law enforcement and behavioral health. Often when it comes to addiction to criminal substances, these two types of agencies will be connected. This goal hopes to facilitate better working communication across state agencies.
The third goal includes tasking healthcare providers to avoid over-prescribing powerful pain medication, and thus reducing one of the major factors that experts say contribute to opioid dependency and addiction.
The fourth goal hopes to expand on programs like syringe exchange and disposal, and reduce the spreading of diseases through shared needles.
The fifth goal aims to expedite the processes by which those impacted by opioids are able to access the help they desperately need. This begins with screening of substance use and mental health disorders, referrals for those issues, and, ultimately, treatment services.
The sixth and final goal is to support communities state-wide to facilitate recovery. In the plan, the department wrote, "Strategies to build communities of recovery include working with employers to increase employment opportunities, exploring ways to reduce system barriers to employment, and increasing access to housing and other supports."
Ultimately, DHSS says both the short-term and long-term success of the fight against opioids in Alaska will hinge largely on the degree of success by which these six goals are met.
Funding for the plan is largely based on grant money, Jones said. To that end, some of the money won't ultimately be sustainable. However, Jones said so far $36 million has been accumulated, which will be poured directly into programs and services meant to achieve the goals of the new plan.
The entire action plan can be read in-full online at the Department of Health and Social Services website.