Comp plan calls for education on, action against drug epidemic

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Lycoming County Deputy Director Planning & Community Development talks about drugs, the eighth issue of the county comprehensive plan, during the Lycoming County Commissioners meeting on Thursday. Wheeler holds a magazine with an article on the drug crisis, highlighting that is not just an important local issue but also a national one.

Overdose deaths have increased by 338 percent over the past four years in Lycoming County, Kurt Hausammann, director of county planning, told the Sun-Gazette during a meeting on the final priority issue of the county comprehensive plan.

Typically, subjects such as drugs would not make their way into a county comprehensive plan, Hausammann said. However, particularly considering the impact of the ongoing opioid epidemic, the county planning department thought it vital to include a section on drug abuse this time around.

“In 2006, when we last did the comprehensive plans, we never even thought about putting drugs in as an issue,” he said. “But it’s become such an issue and it’s so pervasive across all aspects of life in Lycoming County, in the state of Pennsylvania and across the country as a whole. It’s affecting finances, the economy, the workforce — it’s affecting families for sure.”

In addition to affecting different levels of the economy, the epidemic is striking all varieties of people, Hausammann said.

Kim Wheeler, deputy director of planning, who presented the comprehensive plan chapter in front of the commissioners on Thursday in lieu of Hausammann, stated opioid addiction isn’t following the same trends of previous drug epidemics.

It’s affecting all races, ages, socioeconomic statuses and geographical regions, and often starts with a legal opioid prescription, Hausammann said.

“People who get addicted to their prescriptions … they’re so expensive on the street. People can’t afford them and that’s why they turn to heroin,” he said. “This epidemic does not fit the stereotypical drug epidemic. This is anybody.”

“It’s not just a city issue,” Wheeler added, stating more rural boroughs and townships also are affected.

Since 2014, the number of deaths from drug-related causes statewide has increased about 40 percent each year, he said. In 2016, there were 4,884.

Every month, there are between 50 and 60 drug overdoses in Lycoming County alone, Hausammann said, and national statistics show that about 4.2 million Americans aged 12 and older have used heroin at least once.

“That is just shocking to me,” Hausammann said. “When my boys were growing up, I never imagined that, at 12 years old, they would even know what heroin was, let alone possibly be using heroin. That just really hits you in the face, to know that a middle school child could be experimenting with heroin.”

Hausammann further exemplified how drugs are pervading various aspects of Lycoming County living, saying illicit drug use affects health care costs and leads to lost productivity and more crime.

“In 2016, crime in Lycoming County rose by 20 percent,” he said. “And that increase was directly related to heroin cases.”

The epidemic is having adverse effects on the county budget too, such as increased criminal justice system costs, higher costs for prison overcrowding and increased recidivism (repeat offenders returning to prison), overloaded court schedules and more.

“It’s increased activity, it’s increased costs, it’s more people to handle situations,” Wheeler said. “It’s multi-faceted. Many things suffer when you have such a big, pervasive threat.”

The county partnered with the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce and learned from a focus group of local manufacturers that drugs also are affecting the workforce, Hausammann said.

“We learned from the manufacturing group they’re having a hard time finding qualified people to fill their positions,” he said. “One reason is positions are getting more technical in nature … but, out of the people who are qualified and have the technical skills they need, only 30 to 40 percent of them can pass the drug test.”

The county’s suggestions for fighting against the opioid epidemic and other drug-related problems countywide revolve around existing and growing programs, such as Project Bald Eagle, the county re-entry program provided by the GEO Group and general law enforcement efforts.

The drafted comprehensive plan also suggests supporting community action in the forms of public education programs, treatment programs and drug education for youth sports programs.

“We have to find a way to balance our resources,” Hausammann said. “One thing that we know is we can’t just arrest our way out of this problem. We need to have treatment, too. But it can’t be that all the funding goes toward the opioid problem because other things like economic and community development would suffer.”

The county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board also is in the midst of drafting a strategic plan, Wheeler added.

“We’re really interested in partnering with them and seeing what comes out of that,” she said.

Hausammann said much of the data used in this particular draft comes from studies and reports published by the Mayo Clinic, Center for Rural Pennsylvania and other authorities. Local information was provided by the courts, the coroner’s office and district attorney’s office, he said.

“What this plan is designed to do is really make people understand how serious of an issue this is,” Hausammann said. “One of the ideas behind the comprehensive plan is to educate.”

“We would love to hear more suggestions for solutions from the community,” Wheeler said Thursday.