The Harford County Sheriff's Office and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health signed a memorandum of understanding Thursday to obtain data on additional overdose victims. (David Anderson / BSMG)
The Harford County Sheriff's Office, with Thursday's signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Sheriff's Office and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to obtain data on additional overdose victims, has one more weapon in the fight to prevent deadly heroin overdoses and bring to justice to those who sell the drug.
Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and Dr. Fermin Barrueto, chief medical officer for Upper Chesapeake Health, signed the MOU, which local officials said is the first such data-reporting agreement in Maryland, during a press conference Thursday morning at the Sheriff's Office Southern Precinct in Edgewood.
Gahler noted the county is experiencing "record numbers" of heroin overdoses, but local law enforcement officials still do not have a complete picture of how large the overdose problem is because the area health system has not previously released data on how many overdose victims bring themselves to medical centers, instead of being transported by EMS.
"We can't fix a problem if we don't know what the entire problem is," Gahler said.
An investigator from the Harford County Task Force, which is under the Sheriff's Office, has responded, along with police and EMS workers, to the scene of each overdose reported to 911 since early 2015.
Local law enforcement has logged 212 overdose calls, 35 of them fatal, in 2016 as of this week through that reporting, Gahler said. Investigators recorded 202 overdoses, including 28 that were fatal, during all of last year.
"Unfortunately, I think next year at this time I think we'll be saying the same thing," the sheriff said.
The health system will provide to law enforcement data on people who visit a UCH facility in Harford County for a suspected "opioid-related" overdose. The data includes the person's gender, race, age, the community where they live, the drug suspected of causing the overdose and the date the person was treated, and it must be provided within 48 hours after the person is discharged, according to the MOU.
That document is in effect for five years from Oct. 1 to Sept. 31, 2021.
Gahler stressed that the health system will not provide specific information about an overdose victim, such as their name or their treatment, but law enforcement officials will be able to better analyze where overdoses are happening and who is being affected.
"I do look at them as victims," he said of people suffering from heroin addiction.
Gahler noted a 17-year-old girl recently died of an overdose at Upper Chespeake Medical Center in Bel Air. Another person brought her to the hospital, so law enforcement would not have been able to get the data on her case, if she survived the overdose, without the MOU in place.
Health care providers must abide by federal law, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and closely protect patients' privacy.
"When the sheriff's department approached us about participating in this MOU, we said 'absolutely, yes,'" Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of Upper Chesapeake Health, said. "We recognize the challenge this epidemic causes for us in our communities, in our hospitals, we want to be very, very supportive and help as a community try to tackle this approach in a very, very different way."
Barrueto said later that Upper Chesapeake Health has not had a prior formal agreement to share data on overdoses.
"This MOU hard-wired the data sharing [while] maintaining patent privacy and HIPPA compliance," he said.
Gahler said police cannot arrest every heroin dealer, but they can track individual dealers, based on overdoses tied to their products. Investigations can be prioritized based on "hot spots," he said.
"If we see a pattern of death, we can trace it back to one dealer," Gahler said.
Gahler testified in Annapolis, during the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session earlier this year, in support of several bills put forth by Harford County legislators to help fight the heroin epidemic.
One of those bills, if it had passed, would require Harford health care providers to provide data on their overdose patients to law enforcement – a similar procedure is outlined in the MOU signed Thursday.
All of the heroin bills died in committee or were withdrawn by their sponsors, Del. Andrew Cassilly and Kathy Szeliga. Harford County Executive Barry Glassman also expressed his opposition during the session to the reporting bill and a second bill related to treating overdose victims with naloxone, because he was concerned addicts would forego medical treatment to avoid law enforcement.
Neither Glassman nor a representative of his administration attended the news conference, but Cassilly and Szeliga were there – Szeliga is also the Republican nominee in this year's race to be Maryland's next U.S. senator. Cassilly, Gahler and Glassman are also Republicans.
"We hammered out the problems with the legislation and realized that we didn't need a law," Szeliga said of reporting overdose data.
She called the agreement "ground breaking" and noted Harford is the first jurisdiction in Maryland to have a formal data-reporting agreement. She said the Wicomico County's Sheriff's Office has been doing a similar program, which has been successful, but there is not a formal agreement.
"This data will allow the county and the people that live here to know where these overdoses are occurring . . . [we can] hopefully address them before more people die and hopefully use that to affect the youth and let them know this is a terrible problem, [it's] not just happening here in Harford County but across our state," Szeliga said.