Pittsburgh Region's Cooperative Approach To Fighting Opioids Held Up As Model

Oct 5, 2016

U.S. Attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania David Hickton speaks during a press conference holding Pittsburgh as a model for how to fight the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

Law enforcement, public health officials and policy experts are hoping a 64-page report released Wednesday will serve as a model for the rest of the world when it comes to combating the growing opioid crisis.

The report from the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics outlines how the Pittsburgh region is dealing with the opioid crisis by focusing on cooperation. It’s relying on cooperation from everyone, from the emergency medial responder on the street, to the U.S. Attorney’s office, and from Pitt’s School of Medicine to the medical examiner’s office.

Officials with the Institute of Politics praised those entities for sharing data that can be used to track the spread of heroin and illegal opioids in nearly real time.

Institute Director Terry Miller said the model laid out in the report needs to be both effective and scalable.

“We want people to be able to pick up this report and to say, ‘You know what, we can’t do everything they are doing in western Pennsylvania. We’re a small rural community, we don’t have a big public university and a related health care system, but we can do some of the other activities that are talked about in this report,’” Miller said.

The report builds on the idea of a community-based continuum of care model, which means opioid users are treated like individuals with an illness rather than criminals, and that the medical community and law enforcement work together to stop the flow of heroin and prescription drugs.

“The plight of the victims and the victims’ families has been the light that we have been running to,” said U.S. Attorney for the western District of Pennsylvania David Hickton. “The concern for the people who are actually dealing with the disease of addiction, with this terrible scourge, with this plentiful and dangerous heroin on our streets and in the pills that are being prescribed.”

The FBI and DEA have opened a special office in Cranberry Township to gather and disseminate all opioid-related information. Hickton said there are still some entities, including coroners and medical examiners offices outside of Allegheny County, that are not willing to share information.  He threatened to go after those officials with legal action if need be.

“No single effort, no single report is a silver bullet,” Hickton said. “We simply need to be relentless in dealing with this problem. We need the full support of every stake holder in this community and across the country.”

Hickton also called for a better system to allow for first responders and family members to share information about drug users who are brought back from an overdose through the use of the drug naloxone. Such information, he said, could help prevent outbreaks of overdose deaths.

The Institute’s report includes several recommendations including: 


  • A uniform tracking system for open beds and outpatient slots that operates in real time, 
eventually showing availability throughout the state. 

  • The establishment of rapid response teams of first responders, law enforcement, public 
health professionals, health care professionals, forensic laboratory analysts and coroners, to respond to overdose spikes. 

  • Improved “warm handoff” processes for transitioning an SUD patient from an intercept 
point, such as an interaction with a physician or law enforcement officer, directly to a 
treatment provider through an immediate in-person transition. 

  • Implementation of “hard handoffs,” which are court-ordered commitments to treatment that are only used when the substance user appears to be putting his or her own life in imminent danger or is posing a risk to others.