Alan Miller: Public records shed light on heroin crisis

By Alan Miller, The Columbus Dispatch A small item in Gov. John Kasich's budget proposal caught our attention.

He wants to allow counties to create committees to review opioid overdose deaths.

Good idea. Ohio is awash in heroin and other opioids, and they are killing people at an alarming rate.

The weeklong Dispatch series "Heroin's hold on us," published in September, showed the stunning effects throughout virtually every neighborhood.

Among the things we learned during the reporting for the series is that the Franklin County coroner already employs such a review board. The idea is to learn as much a possible about those who die by opioid overdose in hopes of finding better ways to keep addicts alive — and maybe even keep them from becoming addicts.

As stated in the budget proposal, the purpose of the review committee would be to to decrease the incidence of preventable overdose deaths by promoting cooperation, collaboration, and communication among all groups, professions, agencies, or entities engaged in drug-abuse prevention, education, or treatment efforts.

It also would maintain a database of victims' names and demographic information, where deaths occurred and contributing factors. It would recommend plans for implementing or adjusting local programs to help prevent overdose deaths. And it would advise the Ohio Department of Health by providing aggregate data, trends, and patterns concerning overdose deaths, all of which would be available to the public.

Excellent goals, but there's a catch: The budget language says that committee meetings would be closed to the public and any records the committee would review would be shielded from public disclosure.

This is a big problem.

Many of the records such committees could review already are public records. Without clarity on that point, we are left to wonder whether records currently considered open and available for public inspection, such as police reports and autopsy records, would become secret.

Further, we are left to wonder why those meetings or the details of these tragic deaths should be shielded. The point is to save lives by understanding how and why people died.

Here's an example of why it's important for the public to see those details: The 2015 Dispatch series "Silent Suffering," which examined the suicide crisis in Ohio and across the country, was built on a foundation of information obtained by reporters who reviewed hundreds of public records documenting the deaths of people who died by suicide.

The public — you, our readers — learned many important facts about suicide because of the information in those records. You learned, for example, that since 2000, more than 20,000 people have died by suicide in Ohio — nearly triple the number of homicide victims.

We learned that more than 80 percent of those who took their own lives were male. Middle-age men, ages 45 to 64, account for nearly a quarter of all suicides. The youngest victims were just 8 years old — and there were three of them.

And even though the state's suicide rate dropped in 2014 to its lowest point in more than a decade, it still accounted for 10.8 deaths per 100,000 people. That meant that more than three Ohioans died by suicide every day that year.

With access to public records, we were able for the first time to get a broad picture of the details behind suicide — "how many had suffered with mental illness, or had a relative who died by suicide, or had a serious medical condition and suffered chronic pain. It was a pull-back-the-curtain look at the factors that led to 20,000 deaths," said Mike Wagner, one of the Dispatch reporters who spent weeks looking at the records.

The records included some of the information that the review committees would shield, such as investigators' notes about conversations with family members and neighbors who knew the victims well. "You really understood why people felt like they felt and why they were in the situation that led to suicide,'' Wagner said. "It was those details that made readers say, 'Oh, my God; yes, I know someone who is on that road and needs help.'"

And we heard this repeatedly after the series: "What you wrote saved my life."

They said that because they could see themselves in the details about those who didn't make it, and those details jolted them into action. They sought help before it was too late.

"Some coroners and prosecutors were skeptical, and some tried to block our path to those records," Wagner said. "But some of those same officials complimented us after the series was published. They could see the value.

"The bottom line is that without those records, we couldn't have done that series," he said. "We could have written stories about the numbers of deaths, but it was the details about individuals that made the difference. People don't respond to numbers. They respond to people they can relate to."

We applaud the effort to create committees to review opioid overdose deaths, but we urge openness when it comes to access to the details. Because they will save lives.