EAST PEORIA — Change the culture. Remove the stigma.

That’s the message from addicts, mothers of overdose victims and others who spoke at a two-hour public hearing of Gov. Bruce Rauer's Opioid Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force which has been holding hearings around the state. The meeting was chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and Donald Kauerauf, the assistant director of the state's Department of Public Health.

“We have to do more than what we are doing. We have to do more, because it is too dangerous now. All my friends who have relapsed are dead,” said Bryce Foster, an area man who struggled with heroin and other drugs for years before going to prison for 18 months.

Tamara Olt said her son went from first use to death in six months. He quit and then tried to use one last time. “They tried to get him back, but they couldn’t. He died in the ambulance,” she said of her son, Joshua.

“We must move past the stigma,” she said. “People who use drugs are still seen as the ‘others.’ They are the most marginalized and stigmatized in our society.”

Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood minced no words.

"Right now, we have babies losing their mothers, parents losing their children and children losing their parents," he said. "I have been in a home where a 16-year-old who died drowning after an overdose. And I have been in a home where a 2-year-old was in a playpen and Dad was dead from an overdose.

"Peoria County is still in denial over this problem. Unless it has affected people directly or someone they know, they don't know what is happening right now." 

Sanguinetti concurred, saying that many people in the state have a problem talking about the ongoing crisis. She went one step further saying many are facing another issue — mental health issues.

"A lot of these individuals are already facing a parallel mental health issue, another stigmatized issue. It's very underfunded," she said, adding that people should get screened or possibly treated for mental health issues if they are in treatment for substance abuse.

More people including health care providers, law enforcement and local first-responders were also expected to speak.

All agreed it was a long-term problem. Ed Betzelburger, the director of addiction services at the Tazwood Center for Wellness, said the people who need to be involved have changed.

“The people who were in the room two or there years ago aren’t the same as today. Now, the new first responders are you and I. They are the restaurant owners who might find a person in their bathroom. They are the librarians and the teachers. They can save people’s lives now.”

And to illustrate that point, a woman with the Peoria Public Library addressed the panel, saying that two people have overdosed in the past six months at the branches here.

Kerry Henry of the Gateway Foundation said, as did nearly everyone else, that there is a limited access to care, and alternatives such as outpatient and day treatment centers should be considered. Day treatment is similar to outpatient, she said.

“It is partial hospitalization. They spent eight hours with us. They have a safe recovery environment to go back home to, which is the key. This is a good way to get them engaged in treatment and to monitor them. We have a pretty good success as long as the recovery environment is good." 

But she and others said more money needs to go into treatment. Mike Kennedy, who heads the Human Service Center in Peoria, likened the treatment dilemma to an old TV commercial for oil filters, “Either you pay now, or you pay later.”

An official with OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center implored the panel to remember the other victims too — the first responders. The official noted that police, fire and paramedics are responding to several drug-related calls daily. Substance abusers know that and often go to "hot spots" such as hospital parking lots or gas stations to use, knowing that someone will call 911.

"The emotional turmoil on first responders is significant," the official said. "We are there to save lives and they know that, but it is taking a toil on our police, fire and our EMS providers."

Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or akravetz@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.