By Colette Panchot
Car crashes would kill 15,000 more people per year if it weren’t for harm reduction devices like seat belts and air bags. Drug policy experts have long advocated for similar strategies to reduce the consequences of risky behaviors like substance use. In response to the alarming rise in drug overdoses in the United States–108,000 deaths in 2021–federal dollars are flowing into the metro area.
A newly formed collaboration of three leading local organizations, First Call, KC CARE Health Center, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), received $1.2 million as part of the American Rescue Plan, which has committed $30 million nationwide over three years to support evidence-based, community-based substance use harm reduction efforts. The collaboration’s grant proposal was one of only 25 approved from about 450 submitted nationwide to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA.)
Will Franklin, President and CEO of KC CARE Health Center, says the collaboration addresses health equity, opioid use, and disease prevention in a patient-centered way. “This effort moves us toward a path of not just early intervention, but prevention.”
Harm reduction strategies aim to decrease overdose deaths and lower the risk of acquiring infectious diseases in those who use substances. These practices are not without political controversy, but national studies have shown they save lives and encourage more people to go into recovery programs.
First Call administers and distributes naloxone, an overdose-reversing medication that targets the respiratory distress related to potent opioids, such as fentanyl. Also known by its brand name, Narcan, naloxone is available free at First Call headquarters, 9091 State Line Road in Kansas City. It is also available for pick-up or delivery at nextdistro.org, says Kelli Jo Parr, Grants Manager with First Call.
“First Call doesn’t require abstinence from substances to participate in our services,” says Parr. “We provide non-judgmental, supportive treatment.”
Parr says that naloxone will not reverse an overdose from non-opioids like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, but that a loved one of someone experiencing an overdose should call 911 and give naloxone. Because the person giving aid may not know what combination of substances that were used, she recommends giving the medication in all overdose cases. She compares it to administering CPR before an ambulance arrives.
KC CARE Health Center tests for conditions commonly transmitted while using substances, such as HIV, hepatitis C, and syphilis. The center also offers behavioral healthcare, including medication-assisted therapy for those who seek to end their substance use, according to Jesse Marden, Grants Manager with KC CARE Health Center.
“There are others doing harm reduction,” says Marden, “but they don’t necessarily have direct access to nurses and doctors like we do.”
Marden emphasizes the third partner in the collaboration, UMKC, which is currently conducting focus groups to create a community needs assessment that is specific to harm reduction. Marden says this unprecedented assessment will illuminate the gaps and strengths in the area’s service network and inform new policies and practices in harm reduction. The university is also forming a Harm Reduction Advisory Council to be made up of those in recovery from substance use and other community specialists to ensure that the collaboration’s work is sustainable.
He adds that methamphetamine use is more widespread in the Midwest than on the coasts, so the risk of overdose increases in our region when substance users are not aware that their drugs may be laced with fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin.
“There are a lot of myths about harm reduction,” says Parr. “It is better to call the crisis line and reach out for help than to look on the internet and get information that may not be accurate.”
Both organizations expect to increase their harm reduction services by at least 25% during the three-year SAMHSA grant period. Both are also continuing to help their clients navigate an often-overwhelming choice of treatment options and community services, such as safe housing.
Information on First Call can be found at firstcallkc.org.
KC CARE Health Center locations, services, and hours of operation can be found at kccare.org.