Baltimore's 11 hospitals have committed to a new city initiative aimed at increasing their role in fighting the opioid epidemic.
Executives from each hospital joined Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen Monday in announcing the efforts to screen patients for addiction, connect them to rehabilitation services and distribute the overdose reversal drug naloxone, among other ways to better help people dealing with substance abuse.
City officials said that because substance abuse addiction is a medical issue, hospitals are the best places to address it. Many people with drug addiction problems end up in the hospital, but sometimes don't have their addiction addressed, city officials said.
The number of people dying from overdoses in Baltimore has soared in recent years, from 167 in 2011 to nearly 700 in 2016. The state hasn't released data for all of 2017 yet, but the number was trending higher.
"We believe that our hospitals can play a really, really important role in how we wrap our arms around this addiction problem that is gripping our city," Pugh said. "When you talk about drug addiction and you talk about opioid addiction, we are talking about a sickness. And when you talk about it as a sickness, we should talk about how we deal with this from a hospital perspective."
Many hospitals already do some of this work with patients with substance abuse problems who end up in their emergency rooms or hospital beds. The new initiative, which originated from the mayor's work group on drug treatment access and neighborhood relations, would better track what hospitals are doing and look at how they can do more. Hospitals that have made more progress could share what has worked best with their peers.
"We cannot stand by in the middle of an emergency when we know that treatment works and our only limitation is our ability to make treatment available," Wen said.
Under the initiative, the city and hospitals have developed potential standards of care that hospitals must follow when treating people with substance abuse problems.
The program would be voluntary, but all hospitals have signed onto the idea.
The Maryland Hospital Association said funding has been one obstacle facing its members as the opioid epidemic grows, and hospitals would like to see that addressed. The state's hospitals operate under fixed budgets, and when they add new services they must find other places to cut.
"When you think about adding new services, you have to juggle what might be diminished," said David Simon, a spokesman for the hospital association.
Dr. Samuel Ross, CEO of Bon Secours Hospital in West Baltimore, said more than 50 percent of the patients who come to the hospital's emergency room have a substance or a mental health problem.
"It really is a medical issue we are committed to addressing," said Ross, who already carried out some of the city's proposed initiatives.
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Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center also has already carried out many of the initiatives proposed by the city. It has screened 27,000 patients for substance abuse issues and officials said that 64 percent have accepted intervention from counselors
"I stand with our colleagues throughout the city and with our mayor to know we actually have to do something collectively to solve this issue," said Dr. Renee Blanding, vice president of medical affairs at Bayview.
The hospital initiative is one of many things the city is doing to fight the opioid epidemic.
Wen has issued a blanket prescription so that any citizen can get naloxone. More than 36,000 people have been trained to use the overdose reversal drug and more than 1,900 lives have been saved in two years.
The city also recently opened a 24-hour stabilization center that would serve as a safe place where drug users can go when they are intoxicated to get medical treatment and links to other social services.