Donnelly outlines efforts to slow Indiana’s opioid epidemic in summer campaign tour

By Erica Irish
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Sen. Joe Donnelly’s summer campaign tour made a stop at the Indianapolis Central Library Tuesday, armed with praises from three leaders in Marion County law enforcement and a track record aimed at slowing the spread of opioid addiction in the state.

It was the fifth day of Donnelly’s seven-day summer tour, during which he previously made appearances at manufacturing plants, restaurants and other venues to meet with constituents.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, speaks at a conference Tuesday about his initiatives to slow the opioid epidemic alongside Marion County Sheriff candidate Kerry Forestal, Marion County Sheriff John Layton and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry.  Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com.

Donnelly, alongside Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, Marion County Sheriff John Layton and Marion County sheriff candidate Kerry Forestal, touted past and current efforts to mitigate the destruction swelling from Indiana’s ongoing struggle with opioids. That battle has resulted in a 500 percent increase in opioid-poisoning deaths since 1999, according to a state report.

He pointed to a 2016 measure that classified both Marion and LaPorte counties as High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) under the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That designation provided $500,000 in federal assistance to Marion County alone, officials said.

This year the senator secured a 10 percent increase for the state’s HIDTA program.

“We need to make sure that the folks behind me have the resources they need to make every corner and every part of our city safe. That’s the goal,” Donnelly said. “That every family have a chance to sit in their front yard to relax, to enjoy their neighborhood and to feel safe.”

While Donnelly’s stage partners offered their support to the initiatives, Layton said that the funding can only go so far.

HIDTA dollars have been streamlined into two main areas, Marion County officials said — vans outfitted with undercover surveillance technology and additional overtime pay for county investigators.

“A surveillance vehicle with all of the equipment it has can be quite expensive on its own,” Layton said, calling the vans a “pretty good chunk” of the HIDTA budget.

Marion County Sheriff John Layton praises Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, for work to provide funding to law enforcement agencies tasked with minimizing the spread of the opioid crisis. Photo by Erica Irish, TheStatehouseFile.com.

And the problem becomes more complex when examining overtime pay, which is often difficult to measure under the pressure and odd hours warranted by an investigation.

“There’s no time clock, and you have to stay with the investigation. Otherwise you could lose everything you’ve worked for during that day or that whole week,” Layton said. “It’s for that reason the overtime pay is so necessary to keep undercover officers on the job, and that takes up quite a bit of the funding. But it’s essential to have the overtime.”

Layton said the Marion County Sherriff’s office employs seven investigators in its gang unit and three crime analysts, who are tasked with intelligence gathering from sources like social media. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department manages other officers eligible for HIDTA overtime pay, though the exact number is unclear. 

Beyond HIDTA, Donnelly also emphasized his role in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), which was signed into law in 2016. It called on experts to refine best practices for pain management, spread awareness of the dangers of opioid addiction and equipped EMS teams with the ability to connect overdose victims who receive naloxone with long-term treatment.

The senator said he will continue to work with Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire on their proposed Substance Use Disorder Workforce Loan Repayment Act. The measure is designed to incentive students to pursue careers in substance use disorder fields by promising them up to $250,000 in student loan relief if they commit to six years of work in areas with high overdose rates or a shortage of providers. 

TheStatehouseFile.com contacted Joshua Kelley, a representative for Mike Braun’s campaign, to learn more about the Republican candidate’s plans to combat the opioid crisis. He did not respond by deadline.

In any case, at the news conference, Forestal said it’s less about the campaign and partisanship and more about which candidate will commit to funding programs that save lives.

“This isn’t a political issue,” he said. “I spent five years undercover. Nobody ever asked me if I was Democrat or Republican. It’s whether you’re doing the job. You can talk about it how some people do, or you can do it like Senator Donnelly’s done.”

Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Editor’s note: The story was updated to correct the acronym, HIDTA, which was incorrect in an earlier version.

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