ROMEOVILLE — Politicians, public health advocates and law enforcement were among the 300-plus people who attended Friday's countywide heroin education forum in Romeoville to talk about the next steps in the state's fight against heroin.
There were also recovering heroin addicts — like Ashley Pavia, of Plainfield – in attendance.
“I came to know I'm not alone, and to tell people they're not alone,” said Pavia, who is 21 and has been clean for six years.
She also attended to learn more about her rights, and others' rights, to accessing opioid substance abuse treatment under a new state law — the Heroin Crisis Act. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, was present to talk about the bill, as were key state agency heads.
Some aspects to the law have already been implemented, but other areas are being developed.
For example, Medicaid recipients, as of October 2015, can no longer be denied access to FDA-approved, medicated-assisted substance abuse treatment. Insurers will no longer be allowed to place arbitrary limits on the level of substance abuse treatment a person can receive, including limiting the number of days in treatment or how long a person can remain on maintenance medication.
The law, once fully implemented, will also prevent over-prescribing of pain medication, create an opiate prevention pilot program for schools, and make Narcan, an overdose antidote, more widely available.
But time is of the essence in Will County, Illinois and the rest of the nation, as opioid-related overdose deaths continue to climb, Will County Coroner Pat O'Neil said.
O'Neil told the crowd he had confirmed the day before the county's 20th heroin-related overdose death of 2016. That puts the county on track to hit the 80s or 90s by year's end, he said, greatly outpacing the county's 2012 and 2015 record of 53 deaths.
At least three of the 20 deaths this year involved fentanyl — a synthetic form of heroin considered 30 to 50 times more powerful than the drug in its non-synthetic form.
“Synthetic fentanyl drugs are found being mixed in heroin. They're also being found all by themselves, which is a huge risk, a huge danger,” O'Neil said. “I believe we're just seeing the beginning of the synthetics.”
With a smaller population, Grundy County has seen fewer heroin overdose deaths than Will County and areas closer to Chicago, but Grundy County's State's Attorney Jason Helland said those numbers likely don't paint a true picture of the epidemic.
“We know Grundy County residents go to Chicago, to Will County, to get heroin and sometimes die in another county,” Helland said. “I believe the numbers would be much higher if we counted deaths [of Grundy County residents] outside the county.”
Lang said he is sponsoring two other bills: one that would require state agencies to educate heroin addicts about treatment options and another that would bar drug court judges from trumping a doctor's order for medicated-assisted treatment.
“None of us that worked on legislation look at this as the end, that we did something very big and now we're done. For me, I look at it as the beginning,” Lang said. “There are still people dying. There are still people addicted. There are still families being destroyed. We need to do more and we need to do better.”
In recent years, the heroin crisis has brought a much-needed conversation to the forefront regarding mental health and the disease of addiction, said Kelly O’Brien, executive director with the Kennedy Forum.
"Our laws, our policies, our budgets do not consider the brain as part of your body. Addiction is a biological, medical issue," O'Brien said. "[Doctors] screen for diabetes, heart disease, for cancer. They do not screen for mental health or addiction. Schools require physicals. They don't check from the neck up."
"It's a sad way to do it, to have the coroner up here giving the statistics, but if it brings us the attention and awareness that we have a bigger problem here, then so be it," O'Brien said.