Here’s Why Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti is Leading The Fight Against Illinois’ Opioid Overdose Crisis
Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti is on a mission.
For the last year and half, Wheaton resident and mother of three has been at the forefront of Illinois’ battle against opioid overdoses, hearing stories from people across the state and helping to transform words into action through legislation, an opioid task force and better access to resources, like a 24-hour opioid help hotline and the overdose-reversal drug Narcan.
Her journey began after the DuPage County coroner asked for a meeting with Sanguinetti to discuss a topic unknown to her at the time. Soon, it became clear he was asking for her help — his office was overwhelmed with victims of opioid overdoses, and the numbers were only rising.
“He told me a lot of people were dying in DuPage County on account of opioid overdoses,” she said. “It came as a surprise to me; I didn’t know this was an issue that was prevalent in DuPage County. This was just not the dinnertime conversation, so I was very concerned.”
“Deaths resulting from opioid overdoses are now more prevalent than breast cancer; that’s absolutely shocking.”
When Sanguinetti learned over 1,900 Illinois residents from across the state had died in 2016 of opioid overdoses, she was shocked, she said. The problem wasn’t confined to DuPage, either — people from across racial, socioeconomic and geographic areas were all being affected.
“It’s an equal opportunity” offender, she said. “Every story was a different story.”
Now, she and Governor Bruce Rauner, along with other state stakeholders, are working on a plan to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths in Illinois by one-third over the next three years, while also putting actionable steps into place to help increase public knowledge, decrease stigmatization and overall quell the complex issue of opioid abuse disorder.
After speaking with the DuPage County coroner, Sanguinetti said she asked her 15-year-old son Mike whether the heroin and opioid crisis was being addressed as his school and if people his age seemed properly educated on the dangers associated with opioids.
“He said, ‘No, we don’t discuss this in school, but mom, there’s social media,’” she said. “And he said, ‘From social media I know this: If you’re on opioids, or if you’re on heroin, it’s a sure path to death, there’s nothing you can do.’ And I found that really interesting, that no one was talking about it.”
For Sanguinetti a picture began to emerge: not enough education, resources, support and doctor accountability yet existed to begin properly handling the Illinois opioid crisis. That was when the governor's office decided to face the problem head-on, she said.
Sanguinetti began looking at how other states were handling the national rise in opioid use and overdoses and quickly put together an opioid task force. The group held over 20 field hearings and roundtables across the state, where citizens shared harrowing personal tales of their brushes with opioid addiction.
Among those stories was that of Jamie in Champaign, a dedicated mother whose family considered her the “CEO of the household,” Sanguinetti said. But after being prescribed opioids after a minor surgery, the medication began to transform into “mom’s little helper,” and a deep spiral began. Jamie learned of other moms also abusing opioids and began to form a network of “doctor shopping” — obtaining multiple opioid prescriptions from different doctors known to readily prescribe.
Another mother from Mt. Vernon said she came home to have lunch with her two sons only to find they had both accidentally fatally overdosed on opioids.
The lieutenant governor also heard from Chris Reed, two-time overdose survivor who was resuscitated in emergency rooms both times using Narcan, an overdose reversal drug. Now in recovery, Reed also helps other people in recovery by running a “sober bar” in Crystal Lake and helping men and women find housing post-treatment.
Sanguinetti also heard from Rex Chapman, a former basketball player whose opioid addiction began just three days after his doctor gave him 90 day opioid prescription following an injury — a massive and unnecessary amount of a powerful drug that quickly led to abuse.
The powerful stories of both devastation and triumph moved Sanguinetti, she said. As a wife and mother, herself, the lieutenant governor said she especially empathized with the women she heard from, adding that because women are looked on as caretakers, it’s often easy for them to forget to take care of themselves.
“I know when I get home I have to worry about meals, I know I have to wake up early in the morning and pack all the lunches so that we can be seemingly perfect, and I know it can be a lonely place for a woman that suffers from this disease.”
“There is a specific pressure that we feel as moms… We’re all perfectly imperfect. What I say to all the moms out there is: Seek help. It’s available. If it’s problematic to talk about in the beginning, call 1-800-2FINDHELP — you will not be judged, you will only be placed on a roadway to recovery.”
The State’s Plan
The opioid task force quickly went to work.
Since it began, the state has implemented a mandatory prescription monitoring program to help prevent doctor shopping. In its first month, doctors and pharmacists checked the system more than 2 million times, and more than 23,000 prescribers in Illinois have been added to the program since the law took effect.
The state also opened a 24-hour hotline for people seeking help for opioid addiction, which has already received more than 1,200 calls, according to the health department, with many callers asking about Naloxone (also known as Narcan).
The task force has also made Naloxone more available so more people can intervene in the case of an overdose, and has changed prescription laws to now stipulate initial opioid prescriptions can only provide a week’s worth of medication.
To further facilitate its goal of reducing the predicted number of opioid-related deaths in Illinois (2,700) for 2020 by one-third, the state has identified three pillars, six main priorities and nine key strategies as its focus.
1. Prevention: preventing the further spread of the opioid crisis
• Safer prescribing and dispensing
› Increase Prescription Monitoring Program use by providers
› Reduce high-risk opioid prescribing through provider education and guidelines
• Education and Stigma Reduction
› Increase accessibility of information and resources
› Increase impact of prevention programming in communities and schools
• Monitoring and Communication
› Strengthen data collection, sharing and analysis to better identify opportunities for intervention
2. Treatment and Recovery: providing evidence-based treatment and recovery services to Illinois residents with opioid use disorder
• Access to Care
› Increase access to care for individuals with opioid use disorder
• Supporting Justice-Involved Populations
› Increase the capacity of deflection and diversion programs statewide
3. Response: averting overdose deaths
› Increase the number of first responders as well as community members who are trained and have access to naloxone
• Supporting Justice-Involved Populations
› Decrease the number of overdose deaths after an at-risk individual’s immediate release from a correction or other institutional facility
In addition to the prescription monitoring program, hotline, increased access to Naloxone, prescription law changes and an ongoing education campaign, the state has implemented a number of other changes to help reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths in Illinois, including enhancements to the state’s current care system that better integrates physical and behavioral health.
The Illinois Department of Public Health’s 2016 State Health Improvement Plan identified behavioral health as one of the state’s three most important public health priorities, with a specialized goal of bettering opioid-related data collection and sharing, as well as reducing the number of opioid-related deaths. The Illinois Department of Human Services/Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse has also received federal funds to fund prevention, treatment, and recovery programs across the state.
Adopted in 2015, the Heroin Crisis Act has also been helpful in the state’s fight against opioid overdoses. The Act amends over 20 existing state laws to strengthen access to Naloxone, support education and training for police, first responders and other public servants such as teachers, and helps keep in check the Illinois Prescription Monitoring Program.
Moving Toward Hope
While addiction is a bleak topic, particularly opioid use disorder, Sanguinetti said she feels hope for the future because she’s already seen the needle move in Illinois, with more plans still in store.
“You’re seeing the government move that needle,” she said. “And for me, a mother of three, it means a lot.”
She’s also hoping to change the language around addiction, “calling it for what it is”: a disease with long-reaching arms that affects entire families and communities.
“People think, ‘You choose to become addicted, this is a path that you need to get out of on your own because it’s the path that you chose,’” Sanguinetti said. “They’re not understanding that opioid use disorder is a disease and we have to treat it the way we treat any other disease.”
Sanguinetti hopes to destigmatize the disease so more people will seek help.
In the meantime, she said she’s available to come and both speak and listen to communities and families still struggling across the state.
“Going forward now, we have the plan in place, we’re moving the needle significantly; we’re doing something about it here in the state of Illinois,” she said.
“And I just had a conversation with my son Michael, he’s now a year older, and he was annoyed that the entire high school was being called to the gymnasium so they could discuss the epidemic. I thought, ‘We’re going some place. We’re actually having a conversation about this disease. I thought that was incredibly positive, and it filled me with hope.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid problem, call the Illinois opioid hotline at 1-833-2FINDHELP.