SALT LAKE CITY — Government and community leaders committed to combating painkiller and heroin addiction in Utah launched a campaign Wednesday that they say will be a catalyst for changing the landscape.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, with a big push from several federal and state politicians, chose the state for its yearlong "DEA 360" program designed to coordinate law enforcement, prevention and treatment efforts to curb the opioid epidemic.
"I'm just someone who desperately wants to keep people alive," said Jennifer Plumb, a pediatrician and medical director of Utah Naloxone. "Utah needs to get honest in this arena. It's ridiculous that we're losing people at the rates we are."
Plumb joined Brian Besser, DEA district agent in charge in Utah, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake City in Sugar House to announce the initiative.
The program includes an "aggressive" 13-week public awareness campaign, social media, community meetings, billboards and a website called wakeuputah.com, Besser said. In addition to raising public awareness, law enforcers will continue focus on taking down drug traffickers.
The DEA 360 strategy is already going in eight U.S. cities, including St. Louis, Milwaukee, Louisville and Pittsburgh. Utah is the first to try it on a statewide basis. It's not yet clear how much money the state will receive.
"What we're doing here as a state is unique," Hughes said. "We're going to blow the doors off those other programs."
The speaker said lawmakers are already drafting legislation in the areas of health care, insurance and law enforcement to address the opioid problem. Some of those legislators, he said, have a front-row seat to the crisis in their professions.
The Utah Legislature might, for example, look at placing limits on the number of painkillers a non-primary care physician could prescribe a patient in the emergency room, Hughes said.
"I used to think that addiction came when you got outside your prescription, if you took more than what was prescribed. I'm convinced now you can stay well within the prescription and find yourself addicted. I think it's that dangerous," Hughes said.
He said he doesn't want to scare anyone, and lawmakers would have to work with doctors and medical associations on such a proposal, but "those conversations, we have to have those."
About 80 percent of new heroin users started with prescription painkillers, Besser said.
In Utah, 595 people died from drug overdose deaths in the year leading up to March 2017, preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. That's down from 710 a year earlier — a 16 percent drop.
Besser said it's not just an adult problem. Children of drug-addicted parents live in fear, uncertainty and neglect and sometimes end up being their parents' caretakers.
Reyes, who along with Besser heads the state's new opioid task force, said Utahns have been working in the trenches to fight opioid addiction for a long time. But only recently, he said, have federal, state and local officials started getting involved.
"Really what's different is not the coordination and the passion for fighting this. It's getting leaders to actually stand up and take some responsibility," he said.
Officials said they intend to measure how effective the DEA 360 program is afterward and maintain those things that are deemed to be working.
"This is a team effort," said Keith Squires, state public safety commissioner. "It will make a difference and save lives."