In 2016, there were 83.9 opioid prescriptions written per 100 Indiana residents.
Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar

Indiana University will tackle the state’s opioid crisis head-on, devoting $50 million and more than 70 researchers to the problem, university officials announced Tuesday.

The initiative comes as part of the school’s Grand Challenges Program, started three years ago. Rather than spending money here and there across departments, the university decided to consolidate resources and target specific areas to maximize results.

Major partners in the effort will be Indiana University Health,Eskenazi Health and state government, among others.

Last year IU announced it would earmark $120 million for the first of these projects in precision health. Earlier this year an initiative on environmental change was awarded $55 million.

The roots for this Grand Challenge, however, came from outside the university. Last winter when Gov. Eric Holcomb delivered his state of the state address he identified the drug epidemic as one of five “transformational priorities” for his administration.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie reached out to the governor shortly and offered to help.

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By the end of the calendar year, about a dozen projects associated with this grant should be underway with many more to follow in 2018, said Fred Cate, IU vice president for research and a distinguished professor.

“Our intention is to spend the $50 million in five years. We won’t spend it irresponsibly to do this. But this is a crisis. This can’t wait for a three-year planning cycle,” he said.

Indiana is one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis, Holcomb has said. Indiana is one of four states where the overdose death rate has more than quadrupled since 1999. The state ranks 15th in the country in overdose fatalities.

No other research universities have a comparable initiative to take a systematic, comprehensive stab at the problem, IU officials said.

“This is a really ground-breaking partnership. This is something that is really quite unprecedented,” said Robin Newhouse, Dean of the IU School of Nursing who will lead the project. “This isn’t an IU goal. This is a together goal. This is an outstanding example of clinical, state and academic partnerships working together towards a common goal.”

While the two previous Grand Challenges Program will each hire about 30 new faculty members, this initiative will hire about a third of that number, mostly to help facilitate partnerships, Cate said. About 70 researchers across Indiana University campuses will be involved in the project initially, and that number will grow over time.

Experts will come from all disciplines, including the medical school, nursing school, law school, public and environmental affairs, and social work. Many already are working in the field.

“This really is about trying to take folks who are already engaged and saying if we engage together we can be more efficient,” Cate said.

Overall the efforts will focus on decreasing the number of overdose deaths due to opioids, decreasing the number of babies born addicted to opioids, and decreasing the incidence of substance use disorder, Newhouse said.

Indiana University Health providers see the effects of the opioid crisis on a daily basis, said Dennis Murphy, president and chief executive officer. As the clinical system most closely associated with the medical and other health-related schools, IU Health has already begun offering behavioral health services in its primary care clinics to help doctors prevent addiction in the first place and help those with substance use disorders.

“We see ourselves as the activation element of the Grand Challenge,” Murphy said. “The Grand Challenge is not something that is sparking a whole set of new investments. It’s really incorporated into what we see as one of our key community health strategies that we had outlined a few years ago… The university has a set of resources that they are bringing to bear on this issue which should help accelerate our improved performance in this area.”

Working with staff from the governor’s office, IU officials identified five areas as most critical.

Data collection will aim to get a better handle on the true scope of the problem. While Indiana does try to track overdose deaths, not every county coroner has the ability to determine exactly which drugs contributed to those deaths. A recent study found that Indiana has vastly underestimated the number of fatal overdoses due to opioids.

Data collection also will focus on gathering information on alternative treatments for pain and what populations they help.

Another focus will fall in the area of law and policy. Topics could range from looking at how many local providers are licensed to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication that can assist in recovery, to whether local pharmacies offer drug take-back programs to prevent unused opioids from falling into the wrong hands, Cate said.   

Indiana University experts will also explore the role they can play in educating, training and certifying others who work to help those with substance use disorders as well as providing awareness programs to prevent youth from addiction in the first place.

The fourth arm of the project will consist of applied and translational sciences to expand more on what is already known about the basic science of addiction, why some people develop substance use disorders and others do not.

“We’re using a socioecological model that shows you need to attack this problem in many areas — individual, professional, community — as well as policy initiatives,” Newhouse said. “We do plan to learn as we go and as we learn, we want to make sure that what we learn gets to our communities.”        

 Call IndyStar staff reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook. 

IndyStar’s “State of Addiction: Confronting Indiana’s Opioid Crisis” series is made possible through the support of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, a nonprofit foundation working to advance the vitality of Indianapolis and the well-being of its people.

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