Opioid Abuse Panel: More Overdoses, Lack of Resources in Linn County

Apr 7, 2017

Al Fear, Pat Reinert, Carri Casteel, Rod Courtney and Melissa Walker discuss opioid abuse at a Linn County Public Health event Thursday, April 6 in Cedar Rapids.
Credit Katarina Sostaric / IPR

Opioid and substance abuse experts called for a community-based, comprehensive solution to the growing problem of opioid dependence in Linn County during a panel discussion Thursday.  

Hospitalizations for opioid abuse more than doubled in Linn County from 2015 to 2016. There were more than 870 hospital admissions in the county for opioid overdose treatment last year.  

Linn County Public Health statistics show the rate of opioid prescription-related deaths in Linn County is slightly higher than the state’s.

Al Fear is coordinator of the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative. He said even though the state saw a slight decline in opioid related deaths since 2014, the overall trend of opioid abuse is increasing in Iowa as the epidemic moves west across the country.

“Currently, in eastern Iowa, we’re on the fringe of the problem," Fear said. "So it’s not even as bad as it’s going to get yet, unfortunately. I don’t mean to be so doom and gloom, but we’re nowhere near ready for this.”

Carri Casteel with the University of Iowa College of Public Health confirmed prescription opioid overdose deaths are increasing across the country and the state of Iowa.

"In terms of Linn County, we have observed that opioid-involved drug overdose deaths tend to be on the high side in Linn County relative to some of the other counties in the state," Casteel said. 

According to Pat Reinert of the U.S. Attorney's Office for Northern Iowa, Linn County lost 27 people to opioid overdoses in 2016. 

"Part of this is a link to purity of heroin," Reinert said. "The heroin now is upwards of 90 percent pure, plus a lot of the opioids are mixed with fentanyl or carfentanil." 

Synthetic opiates fentanyl and carfentanil—which is used as an elephant tranquilizer—are much more potent than heroin. 

Additional funding for residential facilities and treatment drugs--as well as laws regarding prescriptions and insurance coverage of treatment--were suggested as methods of curbing opioid abuse in the county and state.

Melissa Walker is deputy director of prevention at the Area Substance Abuse Council, which runs the county's only inpatient treatment facility. She said opioid abuse is escalating. 

“These are very very sick patients, sicker than we’ve ever seen before," Walker said. "And we have seen over the past 10 years, over a 200 percent increase in patients who are coming in specifically requesting help with an opioid abuse disorder.”  

Walker said the 22-bed residential treatment facility is almost always full and has a waiting list. 

"This is where we're failing as a community, in my opinion, is treatment resources," Fear said.