Pritzker administration launches overdose prevention plan, names behavioral health officer

An Illinois Department of Human Services building in Springfield, Illinois.
An Illinois Department of Human Services building in Springfield, Illinois.(Mike Miletich)
Published: Mar. 21, 2022 at 5:33 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Gov. JB Pritzker announced a new plan Monday to help end the opioid epidemic in Illinois and provide equitable addiction services for those in need.

While opioid deaths have decreased over the years, Pritzker stressed that deaths from overdose in Illinois affect communities of color more.

The State of Illinois Overdose Action Plan, or SOAP, centers around outreach efforts with those most at risk of overdose in marginalized communities. Teams from the Illinois Department of Human Services are already providing mobile medication services in Chicago and more than 300 people recently participated in a harm reduction summit hosted by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Pritzker also explained that new learning collaboratives are helping sheriffs and local health departments reduce recidivism and overdoses for people leaving jail.

“Pain left in the shadows hurts us all,” Pritzker said. “So if you’re struggling, know that your fight is my fight and the government of Illinois is here to assist you.”

Pritzker hopes lawmakers will include $979 million for mental health and substance abuse treatment in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget. He said that would be a $400 million increase compared to the allotment for those services in the 2019 budget.

This pandemic continues to take a toll on the mental and behavioral health of many. Lawmakers and advocates said early on that Illinois needed someone to lead the response, and the governor has now created that role.

On Monday, Pritzker named David T. Jones as the state’s first Chief Behavioral Health Officer. Jones currently runs the Division of Substance Use Prevention and Recovery for the Department of Human Services.

Pritzker hopes Jones can help move Illinois forward with the strong focus on equity in health care services. Jones said he will work alongside people with lived experience, behavioral health care providers, elected officials, people who use drugs, and other stakeholders to improve support services.

“Our work will include both building upon the good work currently occurring and scaling up coordination across departments or agencies to facilitate greater treatment effectiveness, fiscal efficiencies, and health outcomes,” Jones said.

According to the state, its overdose action plan can help people at risk of overdose from synthetic opioids, cocaine, heroin, meth, and other drugs. Gail Richardson works with Chicago’s West Side Outreach Heroin and Opioid Task Force. Richardson says she is a good outreach specialist to help others because she is a recovering addict herself.

“As of February, we have trained 6,294 on how to use Narcan kits, how to save lives, and how to reverse the overdoses. We’ve visited 677 sites on the west side,” Richardson said. “We go out and we also talk to people who have had kits used on them. As of 2022, 120 people have used the kits to reverse an overdose.”

Richardson said one of the important things for people to remember is if they fall down, they can get up again.

Luke Tomsha also joined state leaders for the announcement Monday. Tomsha is the Founder and Executive Director of the Perfectly Flawed Foundation which provides harm reduction and recovery services for people in North Central Illinois. He overcame a 14-year heroin addiction in 2015.

Tomsha explained he was able to overcome the challenges because he had a supportive family and access to insurance, medical care, and treatment. He stressed that there are many people who don’t have those resources.

“I am proud to be part of the governor’s overdose steering committee and applaud the state of Illinois for creating a seat at the table for the voice of lived experience, understanding that former and active users play a critical role in preventing and reversing overdose. We have a deep understanding of our lives as well as the barriers we face and how to survive,” Tomsha said. “We understand the isolation people like us experience due to stigma, shame, and criminalization.”

The University of Illinois Office of Medicaid Innovation will work alongside Jones by providing research and administrative support. The administration explained that work will include assessing current state programs, initiatives, and behavioral health spending in order to work on improvement.

The Pritzker administration said his appointment is effective April 1.

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