Ochsner receives $1M to help combat opioid crisis in rural Louisiana

Boxes of Narcan sit on a meeting room table.
Beacon Connections recently launched an Ally program, designed to provide patients with opioid addiction pathways to treatment and reduce harm from drug use, for example by providing the overdose-stalling medication Narcan. Staff photo by Alena Maschke

High schoolers in varsity jackets and huddles of middle school students in their school T-shirts listened to Stephen Hill share his journey from hockey standout to college dropout and opioid addict. Later, some shared their own stories about how addiction had already impacted their young lives.

Jennings High School student Jade Guilbeaux, 14, lost an older cousin to an overdose, and worried others would follow the lead of dangerous examples of open drug use in popular culture. 

“It’s influencing more people to do it and I think that’s a big problem,” Guilbeaux said.  

Isolation during the pandemic and the reach of social media has served to exacerbate these effects, said Leah Raye McDowell, 17, also a student at Jennings High School. “It is amplified in a way that is uncontrollable,” McDowell said.

“It’s our best and brightest students that are here,” McDowell said. “We need connections to those students that we see going down this path, the students that are in those parties, and we need to broaden it up.”

Educational events like this one are a good start, McDowell said, but more has to be done to reach students who are already struggling or on the wrong path. 

The event, held Nov. 16, is part of an Ochsner Lafayette General initiative to combat opioid addiction and abuse in rural communities. The funding for the initiative, $1 million, comes in the form of a federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Rural Communities Opioid Response Program. It will be used to pay for preventative and educational programming, expenses related to treatment, and recovery support.

“The comprehensiveness of this is what’s unique, is what’s really going to make a difference for our communities,” said Karen Wyble, Ochsner Lafayette General’s vice president of community and public affairs. Lafayette General is the first entity to receive this grant in the state. “There is no other grant of its kind in Louisiana,” Wyble said.

For Dr. James McNally, a family doctor practicing at Ochsner Health Center in Jennings, there isn’t a typical opioid patient. There are just too many of them. 

There’s the young plant worker spending thousands every month on an over-the-counter drug ordered from Canada to keep the withdrawals at bay. There’s the 50-year-old man who fell out of treatment when he left the state to sort out his late mother’s affairs and relapsed. And there are the pregnant women who come to the maternity ward with a new life in their womb and an old addiction dragging both of them down.

“We see that kind of stuff every day,” McNally said of the staff at his practice in Jeff Davis Parish.

A teenager in a Jennings High School shirt stands on the side of a main street.
Jennings High School student Leah Raye McDowell, 17, standing in front of the venue where an opioid abuse education was held on Thursday Nov. 16, 2023, in Jennings, La. Photo by Alena Maschke

Fifteen years ago, McNally started offering medication assisted treatment for patients who are addicted to opioids, either after years of prescribed use or an escalating addiction to substances that range from prescription painkillers to fentanyl pills pressed in someone’s garage.

“I saw it as a need in Jennings many years ago,” McNally said. In the years since, awareness of the opioid crisis and its root causes has grown exponentially.

The grant will help expand existing programs as well as create opportunities to test out new solutions, such as vending machines dispensing Narcan, the brand name for the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, which is administered as a nasal spray.

“It has been successful throughout the country. We do not have any in the state of Louisiana as of today,” Wyble noted of the vending machines, which she said Lafayette General is currently researching further for potential implementation through the program.

One of the tried and tested approaches the grant funds is peer navigators who help overdose victims find their way from the emergency room to rehab. Lafayette General has already partnered with Lafayette-based nonprofit Beacon Connections on a similar program locally and has now expanded the program to emergency rooms in Crowley, Kaplan and Jennings.

Although located in Lafayette, the hospital and Wyble personally feel a sense of responsibility toward rural residents. “With the exception of Lafayette Parish, we’re surrounded by rural communities,” said Wyble, who grew up in Arnaudville.

McNally too emphasized the need for more support in combating the opioid epidemic and overdose crisis. “It doesn’t give any type of community a break,” he said, “it’s just everywhere.” But, he added, “we don’t have the services in rural communities that the bigger cities have.”

And while practitioners, policymakers and the country as a whole now have a much better understanding of the crisis and its root causes, the battle is far from over.

The fallout from overprescription of opioid painkillers in the 1990s led providers to significantly reduce the amount of opioids prescribed to patients over the past two decades.

That dried up the supply, however, and left many of those already addicted to opioids to seek out street drugs like heroin and, later, fentanyl, which sparked an international industry to supply the highly potent opioid. 

“Making it harder for physicians to prescribe the medicine, in a sense, created this market for fentanyl, and in the short term has increased overdoses.” McNally said. Even small amounts of pure fentanyl can be deadly and the drug’s concentration in illegally pressed pills, for example, is impossible to assess for those taking them.

Still, McNally is hopeful. “I think we’re gonna have one generation where it’s very difficult, the people who got stuck,” he said. But, he added, as the public becomes more educated about the risks, he hopes both the number of users and overdoses will eventually come down.

Educating young people on the dangers of opioids in all their forms is key to preventing a new generation from falling into the ever-more dangerous cycle of addiction, McNally explained.

Young people are going to experiment, the family physician said: “We can’t stop that.” But he believes if young people are educated on the dangers of this particular group of drugs, “maybe they’ll fear that and dabble and try something else.”

One way the initiative hopes to accomplish this is by helping fund schools’ access to PAX, a tool designed to increase student engagement and improve mental health outcomes, including preventing opioid abuse.

“They were literally begging us for help,” Wyble said of meetings with local school faculty, who asked for access to the program to help them combat addiction on their campuses.

The initiative also funds additional staff for McNally’s office, training for physicians to better assist patients who struggle with opioid use or abuse, and a data analyst to keep track of results. And Wyble hopes more programming can be added down the line, for example to assist incarcerated people, who are at an exponential risk of overdose after their release, when their tolerance is down and their cravings are still there.

“We need to treat patients who have a substance abuse, opioid abuse, disorder. But it’s bigger than that,” Wyble said, noting that obtaining the funds to jumpstart these efforts was an important first step. “This is only the beginning of a long road ahead.”