MIDDLETOWN, Ohio (Journal-News) — During the height of the opioid epidemic, Butler County’s hardest hit city took aggressive steps to combat the drug overdoses.
Middletown implemented a quarterly Heroin Summit meeting under the leadership of then-City Manager Doug Adkins, started a Heroin Response Team and a needle exchange program through the city’s heath department.
“A very proactive approach” is how police Chief David Birk described the city’s strategy.
The heroin summit included representatives from law enforcement, education, health services, religious groups and addiction services.
The response team, headed up by Middletown Division of Fire Capt. David Von Bargen, includes a Middletown police officer, paramedic/firefighter and social worker who work together to get treatment for those who overdose.
"That was a huge success,” said Birk, who regularly attended the summit meetings at Atrium Medical Center.
During a three-year period from 2016 to 2018, Middletown saw 1,991 drug overdoses, including 204 fatalities, according to fire department records. The deadliest year was 2017 when 77 fatalities were part of the 966 overdoses.
In 2017, Dan Picard, then a Middletown council member, made national news when he suggested the city’s public safety services not respond to some overdose calls.
Picard said that a person who overdoses in Middletown should receive a summons to appear in Municipal Court and receive an administrative penalty to do community service equal to the costs of the EMS runs. If there was a second occurrence, that administrative penalty would be doubled, he suggested.
However, if there was a third overdose occurrence, Picard said no EMS unit should be summoned for the overdose patient. The city never implemented Picard’s plan.
But Middletown’s initiatives were credited with dropping the city’s opioid overdose deaths in half in 2020, according to data.
Overdose deaths dropped from 48 in 2019 to 24 in 2020 and total overdoses fell from 457 to 424 in the city.
Butler County could receive more than $5 million and access to millions more in a huge statewide settlement with the big three opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson.
The county’s share is part of a nationwide $26 billion settlement brokered by state attorneys general with the three largest opioid distributors Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen and Johnson & Johnson.
As part of the national settlement, Middletown is expected to receive $821,000 to $1.17 million during the next 18 years and the funds received must be used for opioid-related expenses.
On Wednesday night, during a special council meeting, members unanimously approved the emergency ordinance.
Two council members, Vice Mayor Joe Mulligan and Tal Moon, talked about the financial settlement compared to the impact the opioid crisis had on the community.
Mulligan called the money “grossly inadequate” and “a pittance” to those families, public safety employees and neighborhoods hurt by the opioid crisis. He said the crisis caused numerous “down the stream issues.”
Moon said the settlement “doesn’t change the broken families and broken lives” caused by the crisis.
He promised to put the money to “good use,” but said it will “never replace the brokenness” families experienced.
Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick said: “While this settlement in no way makes our city whole again, it does help provide much needed, additional assistance to our community in the continued effort to respond to and treat addiction.”
While there has been a reduction in opioid overdoses, Middletown narcotics officers have seen increases in methamphetamines, heroin and fentanyl, according to Birk.
He said police seized a record amount of meth in 2020 when they skyrocketed from 196 grams in 2016 to 21,457 grams four years later. The narcotics unit confiscated 5,464 grams of fentanyl/heroin in 2020, a change from 264 grams of fentanyl/heroin in 2016, Birk said.
Birk said Middletown recently has seen “up and down” swings with heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.
“It’s all over the board,” he said.