The Rundown: Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic

(Photo: YC/Nik Hatziefstathiou)

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Gov.) – The Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia presented its final report and recommendations to Mayor Jim Kenney today, the culmination of a four-month initiative designed to address the growing opioid crisis in Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney received the report during a press conference at City Hall where he was joined by Governor Tom Wolf.

“The opioid epidemic has been taking lives, destroying families and undermining the quality of life of Philadelphians across the city,” Kenney said. “This report and its recommendations offer a roadmap as to how, together, we can take action and adequately address this problem to reduce use and the devastating loss of life this epidemic is causing.”

The report was developed based on input from the 23-member Task Force convened by Mayor Kenney and co-chaired by former Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) Commissioner Dr. Arthur Evans and Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.

Its members include a broad section of stakeholders representing public health, substance use disorder treatment providers, healthcare, law enforcement, local, state and federal governments, and managed care as well as former opioid users and their loved ones. Governor Wolf commended Mayor Kenney and the Task Force for working to help save lives and address substance misuse in the city.

“The task force report, and the recommendations it contains, align with the efforts that we have made at the state level to give our local municipalities and cities, our first responders, our law enforcement officials, and all of our citizens the tools they need to save the life of a loved one – and get them into quality and proven treatment programs,” Governor Wolf said. “I applaud the mayor and the task force for the commitment to fighting this epidemic that is a scourge on our state and the City of Philadelphia.”

The Task Force members also convened five subcommittees of additional experts, totalling nearly 100 people. The five subcommittees were Data Analysis and Sharing; Public Education and Prevention Strategies; Justice System, Law Enforcement, and First Responders; Service Access, Best Practices, and Treatment Providers; and Overdose Prevention and Harm Reduction.

“In just a very short time, we were able to bring together a group of people whose collective expertise allowed for the development of recommendations that will help in the response to this growing crisis, which is taking more lives in Philadelphia than gun violence,” said Evans, who left DBHIDS in February to become CEO of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

Through semi-monthly meetings and four Community Listening Sessions held throughout Philadelphia, the 23 Task Force members agreed on 18 recommendations and accompanying metrics to increase prevention and education efforts while enhancing treatment opportunities for those impacted by the opioid crisis. The recommendations, which were developed recognizing the diversity of the city and the varied populations affected by the epidemic, are as follows: (Recommendations in bold include work that has been completed or is currently underway)

  1. Conduct a consumer-directed media campaign about opioid risks.
  2. Conduct a public education campaign about naloxone.
  3. Destigmatize opioid use disorder and its treatment.
  4. Improve health care professional education.
  5. Establish insurance policies that support safer opioid prescribing and appropriate treatment.
  6. Increase the provision of medication-assisted treatment.
  7. Expand treatment access and capacity.
  8. Embed withdrawal management into all levels of care, with an emphasis on recovery initiation.
  9. Implement “warm handoffs” to treatment after overdose.
  10. Provide safe housing, recovery, and vocational supports.
  11. Incentivize providers to enhance the quality of substance use disorder screening,
  12. Expand naloxone availability.
  13. Further explore comprehensive user engagement sites.
  14. Establish a coordinated rapid response to “outbreaks.”
  15. Address homelessness among opioid users.
  16. Expand the court’s capacity for diversion to treatment.
  17. Expand enforcement capacity in key areas.
  18. Provide substance use disorder assessment and treatment in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

Additionally, DBHIDS has addressed the opioid epidemic in a variety of ways, including the requirement of all halfway houses to accept individuals on all forms of medication-assisted treatment and psychiatric mediations to increase access to treatment (effective June 1, 2017); mandated all opioid treatment programs to offer all forms of mediation-assisted treatment, including methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone; and initiated planning for the development of a 24/7 walk-in center where individuals can receive immediate stabilization in the outpatient setting and get access to further treatment.

During the press conference releasing the report, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley commended Mayor Kenney for taking the necessary steps to place a much-needed spotlight on the opioid crisis, which he considers to be as big of a threat today as the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s. In 2015, Philadelphia’s rate of overdose deaths – 46.8 per 100,000 residents – greatly outpaced larger cities such as Chicago (15.4) and New York (11.2). Additionally, experts are already predicting that opioid deaths in 2017 will exceed 2016 numbers, reaching nearly 1,200 deaths.

“We can end this crisis, but it will take the coordinated efforts of very many people and organizations,” Farley said. “The recommendations of the Task Force will guide all of us in this. They are comprehensive and focus on consumer and provider education, expanded treatment efforts and overdose.”