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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about the opioid epidemic in our region. Members of the Southmoreland Tam O’Shanter staff spend hours conducting interviews, poring over statistics, researching local and national websites, and writing stories on both the national and local levels about this crisis and how it is affecting our community. The stories appear on page 1 of the newspaper website.
Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth Bacha took over for his father as coroner in 2002. Throughout the span of 24 years, Bacha’s father’s office processed five heroin-related fatal drug overdoses. In Bacha’s first year on the job alone, his office processed 12.
That number increased to 94 in the year of 2016. And, a total of 141 non-heroin opioid-related fatal overdose cases have also been processed by the County Coroner.
Bacha says that since he took over in 2002, heroin overdoses had increased by 683 percent by the year 2015 and Fentanyl cases have risen 364 percent from 2015 to 2016.
“This has skyrocketed our caseload,” said Bacha, adding that the overdoses are emotionally taxing on the communities of Westmoreland County, but also says that, “On average, each overdose case costs the county’s taxpayers about $3,000.”
In a recent article in the Tribune Review’s, Bacha said the opioid epidemic “is frustrating and tragic. You talk about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel … I don’t mean to joke about this, but I literally don’t even see the tunnel at this point, I’m sorry to say.”
When asked for some context, Bacha said, “We’re not even close to the end of this crisis.” But, he said, county officials remain hopeful a solution will be reached.
In an interview with the Tam O’Shanter, Bacha said he sees “great potential” in efforts by the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Taskforce.
“It’s a multifaceted approach that includes law enforcement, the healthcare industry” and county offices like his own, He said. “Every agency that can help has a seat at the table.”
Using data to spearhead the uphill battle, the Taskforce is finding various ways to create long term solutions to the still-growing epidemic, including educating healthcare professionals on proper prescription protocol.
A concern brought up is whether opioid abusers should be punished. “I’m not a law enforcement expert,” Bacha said. “But,we can’t just arrest our way out of this. It’s going to take more than that.”
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck seems to concur with Bacha’s understanding. “The problem is so prevalent and it’s become so much of the community that it can’t be put to rest by prosecution,” Peck said.
Peck said that education of healthcare professionals and the general population about the dangers of opioids is going to have to be one of the biggest goals for the county.
“Prosecution is the last resort,” said Peck. “This is a health issue.”
Peck said that prosecution is necessary in several cases, however.
“When drug abuse causes abusers to commit other crimes and spread their misery to other people, the abuse becomes a criminal issue,” Peck said.