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ODU Joins University Research Consortium Tackling Opioid Addiction

Old Dominion University has joined a five-university collaborative aimed at tackling the immense threat of opioids in Virginia communities.

The multidimensional research and treatment project - which was recently awarded a federal grant of up to $2.5 million - features participants with public health, medical, community service, addictions and economic expertise from the University of Virginia, George Mason University, Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and Old Dominion. Together with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services, they comprise the Virginia Higher Education Opioids Consortium (VHEOC).

The grant is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) State Opioid Response. Virginia was awarded over $15 million and the proposal included funding for the VHEOC project.

The unprecedented partnership will support prevention, treatment and recovery programs through community service boards across Virginia. It will also introduce innovative ways to collect and analyze data about this national problem. And it was sparked in part by the 2017 State of the Commonwealth Report, produced annually by ODU's Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy.

The report noted that total opioid overdose deaths have more than doubled in Virginia since 2010 and that the effect of abuse of the prescription painkilling drugs could reduce the Commonwealth's gross domestic product by as much as 1.7 percent.

The report also recommended a comprehensive research, legislative, administrative effort over the next decade to address the crisis.

Barbara Blake is the chief administrative officer of the Dragas Center and ODU representative on the VHEOC Support Committee. She said the grant can help the Dragas Center continue its research into the multifaceted economic impact of opioids in Virginia.

"As fatalities from opioid overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in Virginia, increasing our understanding of how economic conditions may contribute to and are affected by the opioid crisis is important for the public and policymakers," Blake said. "I believe that our research will provide valuable insight into the economic nature of diseases of despair and the substantial costs on our society."

The 2017 State of the Commonwealth chapter on opioids was co-authored by ODU President Emeritus James V. Koch and Dragas Center director and professor of economics Robert M. McNab.

Dr. William Hazel, Virginia's Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2010-18, said it was evident that the Commonwealth and its universities were missing a mutually beneficial opportunity to collaborate on research and analysis for complex issues such as the opioids crisis.

Hazel now works as senior advisor for strategic initiatives and policy at George Mason and was one of the proponents of the multi-university approach to help community service boards address the epidemic.

"My hope is that this will be a model for how we as universities can work in a more aligned fashion and meet what is a real community need," he said.

David Driscoll, assistant dean for research at the University of Virginia, brought an approach modeled at his former employer - the University of Alaska, Anchorage - to this state. In that large, sparsely populated state, he developed a collaborative relationship with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to leverage the university's capabilities to help the state implement federally funded programs.

"I came to U.Va. with an idea of providing a similar service related to the opioid crisis in the Commonwealth," Driscoll said.

This led to a series of meetings around the state to form the framework for how the VHEOC could grow and evolve to include all Virginia universities working on the opioids issue. "We see a role for our institutions, working either independently or part of team, in supporting state and local partners," Driscoll said. "We can provide expertise in data analytics, neuroscience, addiction medicine, economics, workforce development, grant writing, program evaluation and community engagement, just to name a few."

The partners believe this two-year initiative could be renewed and ultimately evolve into a permanent resource.

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