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Overdoses, mental health calls remain high in Baton Rouge area; coroner hopes new tax will help

The Advocate - 1/9/2019

Jan. 09--Overdoses and mental health calls remain at historic highs in the Baton Rouge area, but East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. Beau Clark said Tuesday he is hopeful the new tax for a mental health center will ease some of his office's growing workload.

At the Ronald Reagan Newsmakers Luncheon, Clark discussed the investigations his staff completed in 2018 compared to prior years -- including suspicious deaths, involuntary commitments of the mentally ill and sexual assaults -- almost all of which have starkly increased in recent years.

When Clark took office in 2012, he said, the office completed less than 500 orders a year of protective custody, which allows the Coroner's Office to transport people to the hospital for treatment against their will, usually for mental health issues. Now those orders have more than doubled. In 2018, his office completed 1,138 such orders, up from 1,090 in 2017.

He also said the number of emergency certificates his office has issued has more than doubled since he became coroner. These certificates are written to hold people against their will at a mental health issues at a medical facility for treatment for up to 15 days. In 2011, the coroner issued about 3,000. In 2018, about 7,600 were issued. That number is pretty even with 2017.

"We do three times as much mental health work as we do in the death jurisdiction," Clark said, countering false assumptions that coroners only investigate deaths.

He said the stark increases in mental health emergency calls during his tenure reflect the lack of mental health services for those in the region, as beds for such patients slowly shuttered over the years, like at Earl K. Long Medical Center and Baton Rouge General Medical Center's Mid City Emergency Room.

"The good news on the horizon is the passage of the Bridge Center tax, so now we're going to use that tax to revamp and build up some services that are really necessary for the treatment of those patients," Clark said. While his office will not receive any of the direct funds, he said, the center will help provide a place for emergency services and provide better ongoing services for patients with mental health needs.

"Maybe we avoid the Order of Protective Custody and the Physician Emergency Certificate because we have a patient who's monitored on a regular basis," the coroner said.

Clark also confirmed his plans to run for reelection this year. He is in his second term.

While overdoses were slightly down from 2017, the number of such deaths from fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid, more than doubled from 2017. There were about 100 overdoses in East Baton Rouge in 2018 -- with a few cases still pending -- a minor dip from 111 in 2017, Clark said. But of those, 29 were fentanyl related, up from 12 in 2017.

Clark said the first fentanyl overdose in East Baton Rouge occurred in 2014, when he recorded one. But since then, these overdoses have been on the rise.

"Like heroin, fentanyl has now come into our community. It's just a little behind the years that heroin showed up," Clark said, noting that heroin overdoses picked up substantially in 2013, from five in 2012 to 35 the next year. "Fentanyl is an incredibly powerful, incredibly dangerous drug."

Clark also said that for the first time in recent years, heroin overdose deaths in the parish decreased -- from its peak in 2017 with 45, to 40 in 2018 -- which Clark notes as positive, but not definitive that the drug was on the decline. Both heroin and fentanyl are classified as opioids, which continue to plague the nation, and Clark said Baton Rouge is no different.

He also reported that suicides rates have remained relatively level over the past five years. In 2018, there were 54, down from 58 in 2017.

Clark also touted his regional approach to sexual assault examinations, where his office completes for the 10-parish Baton Rouge region. He said they provide a "comprehensive sexual assault forensic medical examination," much more scientific- and evidentiary-based than many might realize occur during a 'rape kit,' the exam's colloquial name. He said the office's sexual assault nurse examiners completed 249 such exams in 2018, up from 148 in 2016.

Clark credited that increase to two factors: More agencies taking advantage of the regional partnership and victims are more likely to come forward.

"We've created a very efficient system for these victims that they have confidence in," Clark said.


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