Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a press conference on March 21 at the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center in West Garfield Park. | Igor Studenkov

Gov. J.B. Pritzker visited the West Side last week to announce the launch of an ambitious new program designed to address the state’s opioid epidemic.

The governor held a press conference on March 21 at the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center, 4133 W. Madison St. in West Garfield Park to unveil the 2022 State of Illinois Overdose Action Plan, because of the particular impact that opioids have had on the West Side and the way proactive way that residents have confronted the problem.

Pritzker’s plan shifts more funding toward mental health services, including addiction treatment services, as well as children’s family support services. It also creates the new Chief Behavioral Health Officer position to spearhead the state’s investment and support for those services and programs.

Pritzker recently appointed David Jones to the position. Jones, who is currently the director of Substance Use Prevention and Recovery within the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), will officially start his job on April 1.

“To be clear, there are many committed behavioral health providers [in the community,” Jones said. “Our work will include both building on the good work and [improving] coordination across departments.”

Prtizker’s plan builds on previous investments and executive orders, but many aspects of the plan are contingent on the passage of a new state budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

The Triage is a collaboration between the Cook County Health system and two long-time West Side mental health care providers: Habilitative Systems and the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center.

The Triage center serves as a 24/7 emergency drop-off point, where first responders can send people who require psychiatric intervention and addiction treatment, instead of sending them to an emergency room or jail. During the pandemic, Bobby E. Wright ramped up outreach as opioid overdoses shot up, sending many patients to the triage.

As Bobby Wright CEO Rashad Saafir emphasized at the start of the press conference, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) found that, in 2020, the Austin, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park community areas had the highest number of opioid-related deaths in the city. City-wide, the number of deaths nearly doubled and the number of EMT calls related to overdoses rose by 32%.

Saafir said that, according to the most recent CDPH data, in January to June 2021 alone, West Side communities saw 122 deaths. With that in mind, he said, it was “quite befitting” that Pritzker announced the action plan at the Triage.

“He and his staff heard our calls for help and paid attention to how racial disparities are affecting opioid deaths in our communities,” Saafir said.

“I want to acknowledge the tremendous work that was done at Bobby Wright, which has saved so many lives for decades now,” Pritzker said. “Equity is always urgent, but in this work, even more so. Even though overall opioid deaths are decreasing, the deaths in Black and Brown communities continue to rise.”

Pritzker’s plan would increase funding for mental health and substance abuse services to over $979 million — a nearly $400 million increase compared to fiscal year 2019.

The money would help fund treatment providers and nonprofit organizations that do “outreach to and engagement with individuals who are at risk for both fatal and non-fatal overdose due to multiple drugs: synthetic opioids, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other substances,” according to a statement released by the governor’s office on the day of the press conference.

The plan also calls for spending $7 million to “completely redesign” the Department of Children and Family Services’ independent living program and $150 million to establish a new Pathways to Success program within the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. The program will help “Medicaid-enrolled children under age 21 who have complex behavioral health needs and require intensive services and support,” the governor’s office explained.

Pritzker said that the plan builds on the work his administration has done in the last two years, most notably increasing the distribution of medicine that counteracts the effect of the overdoses, doing more outreach and making it easier for people dealing with addiction to get access to recovery services.

“Here is the truth. Everybody knows somebody who is struggling and our support systems need to reflect that, because the pain left in the shadows hurts us all,” Pritzker said. “So, if you’re struggling, know that your fight is my fight and the government of the state of Illinois is with you.”

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) pointed to the fact that a significant portion of people who have died of overdoses on the West Side don’t live on the West Side, so the investment in the West Side would help the Chicago area as a whole.

“The governor’s action will help save the lives of residents on the West Side and people coming from suburbs struggling with a substance use disorder,” he said.

Gail Richardson, of Austin, is one of several recovery specialists who are currently in recovery themselves and are trying to help others struggling with addiction. During the press conference, she said that they cover the West Side as far east as Sacramento Boulevard.

“We need more people, we need more people, we need more people, because we have so much ground to cover,” Richardson said.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com