More than 200 stakeholders with backgrounds in law enforcement, health care, education, social work and more met Wednesday for the Southwest Kansas Opioid Summit to discuss numbers, prevention measures and a path forward from the growing opioid epidemic.

The summit was the second in counting for the Finney County Opioid Task Force, a collaborative effort by the LiveWell Finney County Health Coalition, Finney County, Genesis Family Health, Compass Behavioral Health, St. Catherine Hospital, Garden City USD 457, the Finney County Sheriff’s Office and the Garden City Police Department to combat the spread of opioid abuse in the Garden City area.

The second summit is more involved than its predecessor, said Callie Dyer, LiveWell executive director, adding main speakers Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman, and Austin Box 12 Foundation Founder Gail Box, as well as several breakout sessions led by representatives from local, area, state and national organizations and systems.

Finney County’s numbers regarding opioid addiction and overdoses are lower than the national average, Dyer said, but the Task Force is committed to addressing the problem before it gets out of hand. And data points to a growing problem, even within the past year. According to a flier from the summit, St. Catherine Hospital in Garden City treated 11 opioid overdoses in 2018, compared to 14 in the first half of 2019.

More than anything, Dyer said she hoped attendees would walk away with more information and more knowledge of available local resources, all of which could help reduce overdoses.

“If we have one person that’s addicted, it’s an issue,” Dyer said.

Schmidt greeted attendees in the morning, breaking down the big picture of the opioid crisis and the way states, including Kansas, are fighting it legally.

Data shows that there were 76 billion doses of prescription opioids distributed in the United States between 2006 and 2012, or about 35 doses per month for every person in the country for seven years. In Finney County, the numbers were lower, averaging about 23 doses a month per county resident for the same time period.

Between 1999 and 2017, the volume of pain that doctors report their patients feeling has stayed relatively the same, Schmidt said. But the amount of opioids prescribed quadrupled.

The state wants accountability for the pharmaceutical companies that caused the opioid crisis, Schmidt said, and it wants to change the behavior of those companies to not cause harm. And, he said, they want financial recovery that could be used to fight the opioid epidemic in Kansas communities, specifically though addiction support or drug intervention services.

“They caused the problem. They ought to pony up some money to try to help change it on the ground level,” Schmidt said.

The state is a part of a 40-state group investigating several companies and has filed two lawsuits so far, he said. But from a solutions standpoint, there is still a long way to go.

The state needs to discuss how the state handles litigation on public policy issues to reduce the likelihood of a disjointed legal approach caused by national firms “shopping for clients.” And criminal justice reform could help expand state drug treatment options, though it would be costly.

“We are nowhere close to where we need to be in terms of the breadth of options and volume of capacity for drug treatment. We are simply not close,” Schmidt said.

Finney County law enforcement is already doing its part to address the issue locally, said GCPD Chief Michael Utz. Detectives from the GCPD and Sheriff’s Office are assigned to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force and work with St. Catherine and Finney County EMS to stay up to date on the severity of the opioid epidemic in the area.

Moving forward, local law enforcement wants to expand its community and student education regarding opioids, Utz said. Officers are also working with the court system to create a drug court, a system that aims to rehabilitate drug offenders rather than blindly punish them, though the effort is in early stages, said Finney County Undersheriff John Andrews.

Box, who founded the Austin Box 12 Foundation in memory of her son, who overdosed on opioids in 2011, said she wanted to urge those addicted that there was no shame in asking for help. Since her son died, the culture around opioids have changed, she said. People are talking about it and understanding the need for treatment and a response. Today, she said it seemed to her Kansas was making a valuable effort to address the issue.

“I think people need to know about the risks involved in taking an opioid. I believe there is a place for pain medications, but I do not believe that in many cases it’s necessary,” Box said. “... Doctors really need to let people know the risks involved in of opioids, the risk of addiction.”

In the meantime, as Schmidt and Box said, getting together to talk about the issue makes a difference.

“Anytime people get together and discuss the opioid the epidemic, we are sharpening each other and making a difference in the world,” Box said.

Substance abuse evaluations and treatment is available at Genesis Family Health, City on a Hill, Compass Behavioral Health and the Finney County Department of Corrections, all in Garden City.

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.