Blumenthal, caregivers strategize on opioid funding

New London — U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., stopped by the city Wednesday to ask area agencies how they would spend their share of $3.3 billion in federal funding for opioid addiction and treatment.

"What I would like to see is a strategy for accessing it and making sure it comes to Connecticut," Blumenthal said.

Sitting at the head of a conference table at the Ledge Light Health District's office here, Blumenthal listened for more than an hour as members of the New London Opioid Action team told him of programs already in place, some funded by the last infusion of federal dollars, and of the need for more services.

More than 1,000 Connecticut residents died from overdoses in 2017, and in southeastern Connecticut, social services agencies and others banded together to launch a coordinated attack on the crisis. Blumenthal said he has been impressed with the creativity and resourcefulness of the region's team and asked members to work with his staff to apply for the federal funding.

"Our goal and vision is a system of coordinated access that is low-barrier and on demand," said Jennifer Muggeo, supervisor of administration and finance for Ledge Light Health District, who will serve as a liaison for the funding requests.

Local efforts have resulted in the installation of recovery coaches from the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery at area hospital emergency rooms and a plan to make suboxone, an opioid addiction treatment medication, available immediately to overdose victims.

Alliance for Living, a New London agency that works with people living with HIV/AIDS, started a syringe exchange program in which providers offer addiction treatment information at the same time they hand out clean syringes to reduce the risk of infection. Members of Community Speaks Out, a nonprofit that works with people who are addicted, families and students, instituted a voluntary certification program for sober houses, where people often live during or after treatment.

New London's Geographical Area 10 courthouse is one of two sites in Connecticut of a new Treatment Pathway Program, in which some people who are arrested work with court-based clinicians to get into treatment rather than prison. The other location is Torrington.

One of the newest additions to local treatment options is the use of $135,000 in grant money funneled from the Department of Justice through the University of Baltimore to hire three recovery navigators who are in training to serve as "go-to people" for assessing the needs of callers and getting them quick access to medication-assisted therapy and other services.

Wednesday's wish list also included a request that sounded simple on the surface. Kelly Thompson, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance For Living, said there is a dire need for easier access to naloxone overdose-reversal kits that already have been purchased by the state during the last round of funding.

The discussion turned to the science of addiction, and retired orthopedic surgeon Frank Maletz, who gives presentations on how opioids hijack the brain, offered up "Just say Know" as a more informed remake of the 1980s War on Drugs slogan "Just Say No," which was coined by first lady Nancy Reagan. Maletz recommended the federal funds go entirely to the National Institutes of Health for use on evidence-based solutions. He recommended that any solution would embrace and use new tools, such as "computing power, connectivity, transparency, blockchain, social media and the Internet."

Others around the table recommended re-using for the opioid crisis methods that already have succeeded in greatly reducing the spread of HIV and homelessness.

"Right now, even people who want treatment can't get it," said Kasey Harding from Community Health Center Inc. "Right now, I have two patients who died on a Friday waiting for a response on Monday."

At one point, a man who identified himself as Ed Brown came into the conference room and placed a bottle of Oxycodone on the table. He said he didn't want to be on the opioid medication, but that it, and medical marijuana, are the only things that help manage the pain he suffers as the result of two torn rotator cuffs, an arthritic knee and other ailments. Brown said after his doctor said he no longer could prescribe Brown opioids, he didn't "run to heroin" but went to a pain clinic in Wallingford, where he began taking the medication under close supervision.

While Connecticut and other states have initiated efforts to halt the overprescription of opioids and investigations into drug makers' marketing tactics, Blumenthal told Brown his story illustrated that the painkillers have a purpose when used properly.

"We need to be careful about condemning painkillers for everyone," Blumenthal said.

Bud McAllister, a local activist who said he is in recovery, invited the senator to visit a Mystic nursing home that he said has the "lowest percentage of overmedication of any nursing home in Connecticut." 

Blumenthal said, "Sure."

k.florin@theday.com

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