Panhandle Health District gets $1 million grant to fight opioid crisis in rural counties

BONNER COUNTY, Idaho — Drug overdoses killed more than 67,000 people in the United States in 2018, according to the CDC. Nearly 70% of those deaths involved opioids. That same year, the Panhandle Health District created Prescription Opioid Solutions Project (PrxOS).

This new initiative helps combat opioid disorders. This year, they’re getting some help. The Health Resources and Services Administration awarded them $1,000,000, which will be given to the health district over the next three years.

“Substance use disorder and opioids was a pressing issue for our five county health district,” said Kelsey Orlando, the project’s director at Panhandle Health.

Orlando said they’ll focus on four elements with the funding: prevention, harm reduction, access and awareness to treatment and community resources.

The grant can only be used for Benewah, Bonner, Boundary and Shoshone counties. Kootenai County is not included because they didn’t meet the grant’s guidelines to be classified as a rural county.

According to Panhandle Health, “there were enough prescriptions written to supply every citizen in Shoshone county with 1.5 opioid prescriptions for the year [2015].”

The project created in 2018 can still help Kootenai County.

“While Kootenai County is a concern and obviously we work very closely with Kootenai County partners, we have other of our counties that are on that higher need and higher priority as well,” Orlando said.

In Kootenai County, the coroner’s office said 12 people have died of an overdose since July. The cause of death is classified as a poly substance overdose, meaning they had more than one drug in their system. One was an opioid. In Benewah County, two people have died of an overdose this year compared to the one last year. According to the Bonner County Coroner’s Office, one person has died of an accidental opioid overdose. The numbers for Shoshone and Boundary counties were not available.

“There was a period of time for about three years where we had a 9/11 happening every month,” said Bill Irving, an alcohol and drug specialist at Lake City Counseling. “We were losing that many people to primarily overdoses to opioids.”

Irving said it’s about getting to the root of the problem.

“The real issue is people’s emotional pain,” he explained. “We try to change people’s behavior without getting to the root of the issue, which is always trauma.”

The health district said they’re going to tackle many different issues in the system.

“We have a huge shortage of treatment providers as well as mental health providers so having access points for people to seek care quickly is really challenging,” Orlando said.

They hope to bridge this gap by getting more people to become treatment providers.

“We’re also able to support certification programs where things like the medication assistance treatment where we’re able to support providers getting that training for free,” Orlando explained.

She said they’re also going to fight against the stigma of an opioid disorder. One way they’ll do this is by encouraging all providers to be welcoming when it comes to people coming in for help.

“We get to partner with clinics to help them with care coordination,” Orlando said. “We get to improve services for screening, making sure we’re catching opioid use disorder early in a clinical setting.”

Panhandle Health is working to partner with a rural North Idaho county clinic to tie in more integrated services such as treatment, detox and primary care. If they can lock this in, Orlando said it would be the first integrated service outside of Kootenai County and it could be up and running by the next round of grant money.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can find North Idaho resources here.

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