What cities can do with social safety nets (and data) to reduce opioid addiction and deaths

Every 19 minutes someone dies from an opioid overdose, primarily prescribed drugs such as oxycontin and hydrocodone and the illegal drug heroin. That number reflects a staggering increase in opioid use and accidental deaths. And the rate of increase in medication-assisted treatment comes nowhere close to the almost 500% rate of increase in 'opioid use disorder' diagnoses identified from 2010 through 2016, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield report released last year.

A group of professionals in the field and a city mayor spoke about how a data-driven social safety net can save lives during a panel discussion at Smart Cities Week 2017 in Washington, D.C. Their thoughts on the extent of the problem and new solutions offer guidance and insights for city leaders, health officials and social service agencies. — Doug Peeples


Opioids, both prescribed and illegal, cause more deaths in the U.S. than guns and car accidents, and the 59,000 opioid-related accidental deaths recorded in 2016 is said by some sources to be the highest ever in the country's history. Reversing that trend is a very tall order for public and private health professionals and the other agencies committed to the task.

Budgets and resources are both tight for many cities. And for Evan Behrle, director of addiction treatment for the Baltimore City Health Department, even more so. Maryland is one of the East Coast states with the country's highest opioid-related death rates. The city has trained thousands of citizens in the use of Naloxone, commonly referred to by its brand name Narcan, which can reverse opioid overdoses — and as Behrle said, those citizens are saving the lives of friends and family members.

The problem as he put it is "We don't have as much Naloxone as we need. It's expensive even though it's generic."

Behrle also said treatment is often not available in rural areas. "We shouldn’t accept that there are places in America that don't have treatment available." He also recommended a treatment infrastructure, one that connects people who need help with those who have the ability to treat them.

Revere, Massachusetts Mayor Brian Arrigo echoed Behrle's sentiment. "We have some federal and state funding, but it's never enough money." The city earlier this year issued a warning about heroin mixed with the much stronger opioid fentanyl because of the high number of overdose deaths in the community of about 53,000 residents. Firefighters have carried Narcan since 2010 and police are now carrying it too.

Local officials are working on a strategy to have all city agencies work together to find alternate funding sources rather than be obligated to following the rules that come with state and federal money.