Group seeks Blumenthal's help in taking fresh approach to addiction problem
New London — Despite the looming prospect of deep cuts in federal spending for addiction prevention and treatment, a group of public health advocates asked U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Thursday to help secure funds to begin a multi-agency collaborative action that would develop innovative approaches to tackling the opioid crisis.
“We’re building this bridge as we’re walking on it,” said Dr. Frank Maletz, an orthopedist and member of an opioid working group meeting since January. “We know the anecdotes and we know the data, and the status quo is not getting better. We’d like funding for a prototype program that integrates community effort and moves the needle forward. We can make you proud of us.”
Jeanne Milstein, human services director for New London, is heading the working group with Jennifer Muggeo, supervisor of special projects in population health for Ledge Light Health District. With subcommittees focusing on treatment, advocacy and education, the group of about 16 health and social service professionals, police and other emergency responders is still formulating its specific ideas but is committed to working together to find new ways of stemming the epidemic of addiction to heroin and other opioids throughout the region.
“We’ll give you a proposal with concrete action steps,” Milstein told Blumenthal.
Blumenthal said he arranged the meeting to learn about the “real life impacts” that could result from $4 billion in cuts to federal funding he said would occur under the Republican replacement proposal for the Affordable Care Act and President Trump’s newly released fiscal 2018 budget proposal. Along with members of the working group, the meeting included about 10 other social service and public health officials, as well as two people who identified themselves as recent addicts.
While Connecticut is expecting this spring to receive some of the $2 billion in new funding for addiction treatment being made available nationally through the 21st Century Cures Act passed during the last months of the Obama administration, those gains will be overwhelmed by the deep cuts now proposed, Blumenthal said. Medicaid cuts under the GOP’s American Health Care Act would eliminate $4.5 billion nationally for addiction treatment for those covered by Medicaid. For Connecticut residents, Blumenthal said, that would mean a loss of about $30 million to $80 million in treatment funds.
Trump’s budget proposal provides about $500 million for addiction treatment services, Blumenthal said but slashes other funding for the National Institutes of Health and other agencies use for research, training, education and treatment programs.
This comes as the opioid crisis nationwide shows no signs of abating, Blumenthal said, noting that Connecticut saw 917 opioid deaths in 2016, a 25 percent increase over the previous year.
Several speakers said current treatment services are inadequate, so further cutbacks would make the situation even more dire.
“What we need is dual diagnosis treatment for this as addiction and as a mental health problem,” said Lisa Cote Johns, founding member of the grassroots group Community Speaks Out, noting that the legal and illegal opioids available today are far more potent and addictive than similar products just five years ago.
Carol Jones, director of medical case management at the Alliance for Living, lamented working with clients ready to enter treatment who get turned away when programs are at capacity, then return to drugs. One of them died recently of an overdose, she said.
“We don’t have treatment on demand,” she said. “But we also need to look at new types of treatment, because what we have now often doesn’t work.”
George Walker, a counselor at the Southeastern Connecticut Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said that given the high failure rate of treatment, the addiction problem needs to be looked at differently.
“We need a redefinition of the problem itself,” he said. “We should frame it in terms of communities. Communities are broken.”
Economic forces that caused pharmaceutical companies to flood the market with opioids also need to be factored in, said Enrique Juncadella, director of behavioral health home initiatives at Sound Community Services.
Detoxification and treatment programs also need to be longer to be successful, said Dr. Tom Defanti, acting medical director of the Stonington Institute.
“The addictive brain is different. The wiring is different,” he said. “That’s not stigma. That’s a fact. People in treatment need to learn how to live, and get reskilled. You don’t do that in 30 days.”
Muggeo said one proposal the working group is focusing on is getting more doctors in the region certified to offer medication-assisted treatment with buprenorphine, also called Suboxone.
Blumenthal pledged that if the group presents him with a coherent plan, he will work with U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and other congressional colleagues to secure funding for it, though he cautioned that he could make no guarantees.
“I will fight for it,” he said. “The status quo is not acceptable, because we’re losing lives.”
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