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St. Louis County announces dueling initiatives to fight opioid abuse

By: Ellen Lampe


Two separate initiatives, released within days of each other, are attempting to combat the same issue, each one seemingly without the organizer’s knowledge of the other. One proposed by the members of the St. Louis County Council and one by St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

On Monday, June 25, a press release from Councilmember Mark Harder’s office, released on behalf of all seven members of the county council, announced immediate plans to combat the region’s opioid crisis by establishing a bi-partisan task force and requesting $1 million in emergency funding. The task force is uncertain at this time from where the funding will come.

Harder indicated that the dollar amount requested was less a concrete number and more a way to indicate that the task force is going to do “whatever it takes.” Once ideas have been submitted and an action formulated, funding will be sought.

The following day, Tuesday, June 26, a resolution introduced at the weekly council meeting to establish the task force was approved unanimously. After the meeting, Harder held a press conference on the new initiative.

“I have been preaching about this for a long time in my community and the West County area. We’ve held many town hall meetings in the Parkway School District, and I think this is something we can’t push under the rug anymore,” Harder said. “We hope this task force will give us some good answers and good ideas that will help the whole community.”

The seven members of the St. Louis County Council [from left] Mark Harder, Colleen Wasinger, Ernie Trakas, Pat Dolan, an empty seat belonging to County Executive Steve Stenger who was absent, Sam Page, Hazel Erby and Rochelle Walton Gray at their June 26 meeting.

The task force is to be comprised of one appointee from each council member and four appointees from the county executive, forming an 11-person task force. Recommendations for those appointees are due by Tuesday, July 3, and would meet over the course of July and August, ultimately forming an action plan due by Friday, Aug. 31. The scope of the task force includes, but is not limited to expanding education and prevention programs, implementing drug take-back programs, improving regional treatment services, expanding medication-assisted therapies, Narcan/Naloxone training, cracking down on the over-prescription of opioids and investigating entities suspected of over-prescribing opioids.

Harder noted that this initiative will remain county-wide for now, but is open to collaboration with the city or any other surrounding counties.

Just one day later, on Wednesday, June 27, a press release came from Stenger’s office announcing a press conference for a “major opioid initiative,” to be held Thursday, June 28.

“We must recognize that opioid addiction is a disease rather than a crime or a choice,” Stenger said at the press conference. “As such, we will adjust our policies, martial our resources and direct our concerted energy toward education, prevention, treatment and recovery.”

The scope of the county executive’s region-wide initiative includes a 30-page action plan formed with the Department of Public Health and collaboration from representatives of 25 community partners, including BJC HealthCare, Mercy Health System, SSM Health, St. Louis University’s College for Public Health, United Way, St. Louis Regional Health Commission and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

Stenger signs his opioid initiative at a June 28 press conference.

Stenger was joined by members of those organizations as well as St. Louis County’s Public Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan and the Missouri Institute of Health’s Dr. Rachel Winograd at the press conference.

“This is the first step, years in the making, in formulating a collaborative and comprehensive regional response to an issue that confronts our entire community,” Khan said. “I want to recognize and thank the many partners – and that list is very long.”

Winograd added, “We have tools that save and improve lives, but people don’t know about them or they can’t access them, or that access is dependent on where they live or who they know or how much money they make. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Two separate initiatives. Both with the same sincere intention of combating a growing public health epidemic. Both conceived with high levels of cooperation and communication – just not between the county executive and the county council.

Both Harder and Stenger insist the dueling proposals are not a political matter.

“I am proud to join my colleagues in supporting this true bi-partisan, non-political effort,” Harder said in his press release on June 25.

Two days later, Cordell Whitlock, the county executive’s director of communications, said, “This isn’t politically motivated.”

Despite the lack of communication, Harder and Stenger said they hope they can reach across the table to work together. If not, each initiative will go forward separately.

“I’m really surprised by it all. It seems very odd when we announced ours that he would come out with something at the same time,” Harder said. “We’re going to go forward with ours. We’ve extended the olive branch to the county executive from the start; we could’ve excluded him from the start. If he’d like to join us, that’s fine. If he’d like to take his ball and go home, that’s fine too. It’s unfortunate that we have to have competing task forces over the same issue. We were there first.”

Stenger does not see it that way.

“This is what I think happened,” Stenger said on June 28. “I think the council sort of got wind of what we were doing here … and I think within about four hours of learning that, they came up with an attempt to sort of upstage this event today.”

But he added, “I don’t think that this initiative will really be combined with that they [the county council] have done.”

When asked why the county councilmembers were not informed of an initiative of this stature that falls under their jurisdiction, Stenger said, “They were actually. They were informed that a plan was being developed, I believe, by members of the Health Department. They had not seen the actual plan because the plan was released today.”

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