Alyssa Sutton

With Gov. Kate Brown recently declaring addiction a public health crisis in Oregon, Clinical Director of Blue Mountain Associates and Grande Ronde Recovery Sherry Forsyth believes only positive changes can occur in the next several years.

Forsyth said the surrounding counties knew an opioid epidemic was on the horizon and have been preparing for it. Forsyth believes Eastern Oregon could now see more state assistance.

“We knew we were headed toward (a public health crisis),” Forsyth said. “Now that the governor has identified it, there could be more of an opportunity for funding.”

Currently Union County has two homes, one for men and one for women, and four small apartments for individuals working through recovery.

“We (Grande Ronde Recovery) are going to try to change the sober-living (housing) to nonprofit, which will allow for more funding,” Forsyth said.

She explained that with the current housing crisis in La Grande, it is difficult enough to attain housing, and when you add in addiction issues or in some cases felony charges, “then it’s really hard,” she said.

Currently, Grande Ronde Recovery, which has offices in Pendleton, Baker and La Grande, services roughly 250 patients in La Grande alone, not including individuals in their DUII program.

According to Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration statistics on the Grande Ronde Recovery website, of the 22 million Americans who have a substance abuse or dependency disorder, only 2.5 million seek treatment.

In Union County, roughly 268 out of every 1,000 residents are prescribed opioids, according to the Oregon Health Authority. Additionally, Union County has an annually higher percentage of hospitalizations due to opioid overdose than any of the surrounding counties, seeing seven overdose-related deaths in the last five years.

“(The epidemic) has been here for awhile,” Forsyth said. “Everyone has just had a ‘covers-pulled’ sort of approach to it, but it’s getting worse and worse.”

Forsyth explained that doctors realized people were beginning to become addicted to opioids, so they began to prescribe less.

“Then people started going to the streets to (find drugs) to manage their withdrawals,” she said. “Doctors thought they were helping, but instead there were unintended consequences.”

Forsyth said that she believes a key component to tackling addiction is education.

“Enough people have this disease,” she said of addiction. “So we can teach them (how to manage it) better, and they in turn can teach someone else.”

Forsyth mentioned that one of the doctors at the clinic, psychiatrist Dr. Joel Rice who is also board certified in addiction medicine, is influential in prescription treatment.

“He’ll be available to (educate) other prescribers going forward,” she said.

Other resources in the valley tackling the opioid epidemic include Grande Ronde Hospital.

“(The hospital) is not a drug treatment facility, although we may see drug overdose patients in our ER and do everything we can to save their lives,” Grande Ronde Hospital Director of Communications and Marketing Mardi Ford wrote in an email.

Ford explained that the hospital works with partner agencies within the community to assist individuals with addiction, such as Children and Recovering Mothers –– a program that offers early intervention and resources through pregnancy for women struggling with alcohol or drug addiction.

GRH also gives financial support to the Drug Free Youth Program and the Union County Safe Communities Coalitions, among other organizations.

“We provide tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of our time to support addiction recovery. It is –– and always has been –– a foundational premise in our mission to best care for everyone in our community,” Ford said.

Under House Bill 4143, which the governor introduced and signed into legislation, the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission has until the end of the year to report its recommendations for a comprehensive addiction prevention, treatment and recovery plan to interim committees of the Legislative Assembly.