In a press conference Wednesday morning, Kirk Lane, Arkansas Drug Director, and the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, along with other state agencies, announced a plan to create a data system that will act as an “overdose map” for the state, tracking fatal and nonfatal opioid overdoses and other drug crime data. The database is funded by a $999,979 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, received by the Drug Director’s office and the AFMC in September 2018 and distributed over a three-year period.
Lane said the database will allow law enforcement and health care agencies, along with coroners and medical examiners in the state, to share information about the locations and patterns of drug crimes, overdoses, hospital admissions and discharges in order to create a “common platform” that tracks the state’s opioid crisis in “real time.”
“This morning I can tell you that in 2017, we lost what we believe to be 416 people in the state of Arkansas to a drug overdose,” Lane said. “But we know that number is low because [of] disparities in how we address those numbers. I would like to tell you how many people we lost in 2018, but those numbers aren’t available to us yet, and that bothered us.”
Because the process for reporting overdose deaths has been inconsistent and slow across different state law enforcement and health care agencies, access to accurate and up-to-date information about drug abuse in Arkansas is limited.
“Right now, we’re pouring 2019 resources, dollars and manpower into 2016 and 2017 statistics, and that doesn’t work,” Lane said. “We need to do a better job in how we bring these databases together.”
Kermit Channel, director of the Arkansas State Crime Lab — which does all the autopsies submitted by coroners in all 75 counties in the state — said the “historic problem” for the state has been that there is no “consistent method or manner of doing medicolegal death investigation,” which includes reporting on the drugs found in bodies examined by the lab, as well as “accurate reporting” on death certificates.
“We’re excited about the [database] program because for the first time … we have the ability to apply consistent medicolegal death investigations to all 75 counties,” Channel said. “What that brings is accurate reporting, and it’s not just accurate reporting, it’s real-time reporting. We can meld [this] into [the overdose map] program and actually supply this data that the state really needs.”
In addition to creating an accurate map of the “environment” of drug abuse in the state, Lane said consistent and timely reporting creates data that makes Arkansas “competitive” against other states for more funding and resources to address the problem.
Kevin Cleghorn, president of the Arkansas Coroners’ Association and Saline County coroner, said the creation of the state’s medical death investigation log — which is the database coroners will use to contribute data to the “overdose map” project — marks a historic moment for the state’s coroners.
“For the first time in the history of the Coroners’ Association, we actually have the opportunity to put all 75 counties on the same playing field with death investigation and the reporting systems,” Cleghorn said. “We have 75 coroners across the state, and one medical examiner’s office. We have 75 ways of reporting deaths. There has never been a uniform reporting system in the state of Arkansas until now.”
Cleghorn said the log, which is available free of charge to every coroner in the state, is a highly encrypted, national reporting system that allows for consistent, accurate death reporting and creates access to such data. He added that the “great thing” about the log is that it can “communicate” with the state crime lab and the drug director’s office in order to contribute to the state’s overdose map.
“For the first time… we have this many state agencies standing side by side, ready to fight for the state of Arkansas and for our citizens,” Cleghorn said. “They deserve it; that’s why we’re here. They deserve everything we can do.”
Lane said funding from the justice department grant — which pays for the creation of the database and training for members of state agencies to use it — began rolling out to different agencies in September 2018, but Wednesday marks the first time since the grant was issued that all the agencies involved in the “overdose map” database are meeting to begin establishing it. He said he hopes to have a “working” version of the database available in three to six months.
Other state agencies involved in the creation of the database include Arkansas Department of Health, the Arkansas Hospital Association and the Division of Aging, Adult & Behavioral Health within the Arkansas Department of Human Services.