Community tells Murphy about biggest gaps in dealing with heroin crisis

New London — From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of high school-aged youth in southeastern Connecticut who reported misusing prescription drugs in the last month has jumped from 4 percent to 11 percent.

That troubling statistic, taken from surveys of 3,000 youth done by the Southeastern Regional Action Council, was presented as one of the many signs of the urgent need for more resources to combat the opioid addiction crisis brought out at a forum Friday organized by Sen. Chris Murphy. Overuse and abuse of prescription opioids such as Percocet and Oxycontin was repeatedly cited as a key avenue for addicts who turn to the cheaper illegal opioid, heroin.

Angela Rae Duhaime, community educator for the Norwich-based action council, offered that statistic to emphasize the need for more prevention education efforts directed at youth. She was among about 25 social service, mental health, law enforcement and community leaders at the forum at the offices of Ledge Light Health District.

The Democratic senator said he organized the event to bolster the case he intends to make with other lawmakers for $800 million in emergency federal funding to combat the crisis. He noted that the House of Representatives and the Senate have both passed recent legislation to address the crisis, but without the funding that’s needed. He pledged to work for passage of the new funds before the Senate adjourns in July. It will include $240 million in emergency funding to increase law enforcement efforts to arrest drug dealers, with the remainder going for recovery, prevention education and other programs that would be determined by individual states.

“It’s not enough just to shuffle the deck chairs. You have to allocate new resources,” Murphy said. “Two years ago, there were six Ebola cases in the United States, and we allocated $4 billion in emergency funding to stop it, and it worked. For this, we haven’t allocated a dime of new funding, and you know the numbers just in a little state like ours.”

In 2015, there were 723 drug overdose deaths in Connecticut — twice as many as 2012 — including 415 from heroin, according to a news release from Murphy’s office.

Acknowledging that another forum about the heroin crisis might seem like more talk when what’s needed is action, Murphy said he wanted to hear from those dealing with the crisis directly about the biggest needs so that he can make a strong case for new funding.

Mayor Michael Passero said one area on which the city is focusing is the so-called sober houses, where recovering addicts live after a residential recovery program. Oftentimes, they are not well supervised and lack adequate services to help the residents stay off drugs, he said.

“We’re looking at a carrot approach, to get them certified to have better treatment programs,” Passero said.

Joe de la Cruz, one of the founders of Community Speaks Out, a grassroots group formed in response to the crisis, said that there are not enough recovery programs to meet the demand and that more emphasis should be put on prevention education. He also advocated that prescription opioids such as Percocet and Oxycontin be relabeled as “heroin level 1 and heroin level 2,” to combat misconceptions about how addictive these drugs are.

Several speakers said doctors are too quick to prescribe opioids, and do not inform patients adequately about their risks and alternative pain management.

Murphy said changes to surveys patients are asked to complete about their doctors’ care might alleviate the pressure doctors have experienced that has led to overprescribing opioids. The questions on patient satisfaction surveys by Medicare and other health care agencies ask how well the doctor has managed the patients’ pain.

“The pharmaceutical companies also have a role to play in this,” Groton Town Police Chief L.J. Fusaro said. He added that his department and others in the region have been “looking for the bigger fish” — the drug dealers — but the level of effort required cannot be done with existing resources alone.

Tamara Lanier, a probation officer in Norwich and criminal justice chairwoman for the New London NAACP, stressed that the magnitude of the current crisis is something she hasn’t seen in 25 years in the field.

“There’s something unusual and new about this opioid crisis,” she said. “They’re not just addicted, they’re super-addicted,” using multiple drugs simultaneously.

“We need a different kind of treatment bed, long-term, intensive care,” she said. “Thirty- to 45-day treatment isn’t going to do it.”

Jack Malone, executive director of the Southeastern Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, agreed.

“The traditional treatment stuff may not work,” he said. “The draw of this drug is like something we’ve never seen before. The kids don’t want to let go.”

Murphy said efforts are being made to lift a Medicaid restriction on payment for long-term treatment. The restriction was put in place several years ago in response to a different problem, he said, “but that exclusion has passed its utility.”

While the expanded supply of Narcan to counteract overdoses had enabled emergency responders to save a lot of lives, it has had a downside, according to Nick Delia, fire chief for Groton City. People are overdosing multiple times because they assume emergency crews will always get to them in time, and that may not always be the case, he said.

Addicts, he said, “think there’s a lower risk now because of Narcan. They’re taking Narcan for granted.”

Other speakers said there is a major gap in services for overdose patients once they are released from a hospital emergency room.

“They’re discharged and there’s nowhere for them to go,” said Gino DeMaio, executive director of Sound Community Services, which provides outpatient mental health services. “We need more money to expand treatment capacity.”

Another gap, said Kenneth Edwards Jr., inspector with the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office, is in “re-entry services” for former addicts newly released from prison or leaving residential recovery programs.

“Many of the deaths we’re seeing are people coming out of prison or out of recovery, without wraparound services,” he said.

Prevention education programs should not only warn youth about the risks of drug and alcohol abuse, said Karl Jennings, health and wellness instructor for the New London Community and Campus Coalition. It also should teach them about how to foster their own mental and physical wellness with exercise, healthy eating, meditation and other techniques that will give them a way to cope with stress and anxiety other than drug use, he said.

j.benson@theday.com 

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