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Sussex County Introduces Its Overdose Fatality Review Team
In the wake of the opioid epidemic that has gripped much of the nation, government agencies, addiction prevention and treatment providers, and the medical community have looked into ways to respond to and/or address the epidemic on the local and national level. In 2014, the state of Maryland began reviewing data related to the overdose deaths caused by opioids. The data they reviewed centered on the family, medical, legal and educational histories of decedents. The process was modeled after Child Death Review Teams already in place in all 50 states. The goal of a Fatal Overdose Review Team is to identify opportunities to improve services for people caught up in the opioid epidemic, determine interventions that will reduce the risk of overdose and overdose deaths, and improve the timing, response and interventions provided. The Sussex County Office of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism Services, along with Sussex County Health Officer James McDonald, has been working to bring together a team to review overdose fatalities in Sussex County.
Overdose Fatality Review Teams already exist in four counties in New Jersey. Ocean County was the first to introduce this innovative approach in New Jersey in 2017. State legislature is currently considering a bill that would mandate O.F.R.T.s in all 21 counties. The United States Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Program (COAP) has stepped in to provide training and support for O.F.R.T.s in other states as well as New Jersey. (For more information about the BJA-COAP check https://www.coapresources.org/#About ). In August, Sussex County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Coordinator Nicholas Loizzi attended the National Forum on Overdose Fatality Review in Washington, D.C. At the conference, Loizzi heard about the efforts currently underway in Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana, West Virginia and New Jersey.
Mr. Loizzi learned about Ocean County's team early this year and determined that Sussex County would benefit from establishing its own team. He presented the idea to Christine Florio, Director of the Community and Youth Services Division, and Health Officer James McDonald. They agreed with Loizzi and, with the encouragement and support of Carol Novrit, Administrator of the Health and Human Services Department, set about contacting the agencies and personnel who will make up the Review Team. The purpose of the O.F.R.T. is to help provide some context to overdose deaths, understand the myriad reasons behind overdose, address the stigma of people who use drugs, explore the challenges to those on the front lines of this epidemic and provide an opportunity for all parties to discuss their efforts and share them with one another. The O.F.R.T. will consist of members from behavioral health, criminal justice, healthcare, medical examiner, EMS, public health, social services and treatment/prevention communities.
Review meetings will take place quarterly. Cases will be chosen on the recommendation of the Sussex County Medical Examiner's Office. The names of the decedents will be shared with the members of the team. The members will review their records to determine if and when they may have come in contact with the decedent prior to the fatal overdose and what services may have been made available to them. At the meetings, they will share whatever information they may have related to the decedent and help develop data to assist in making recommendations for improvement, consideration of policy changes, identify opportunities to provide services missed, or anything that may help prevent another person's fatal overdose. Every agency and person who participates in the O.F.R.T. will be required to sign confidentiality agreements to preserve the dignity and rights of each decedent. Meetings will be kept closed to maintain confidentiality. Information shared will be done in person at the meetings or through password-protected or encrypted means. The O.F.R.T. will issue an annual report citing any relevant data or recommendations as a result of these reviews.
The goal of the Sussex County Overdose Fatality Review Team is to ensure that everything that can be done to prevent overdose deaths in the future is put into place through this effort. Mr. Loizzi and Mr. McDonald have assembled the team and are determined to begin reviewing cases before the end of 2019.