Continuing local progress in the opioid fight
New London now has three new instruments — a law, a local ordinance, and an enhanced regional voluntary certification program — to help power the city's commitment to treat opioid addiction as a public health and safety emergency.
The entire country is dealing with an epidemic so lethal it may factor in lowering the average life expectancy of Americans. In Connecticut and especially this region, advocates have managed to sway public understanding to see that opioid addiction is a disease, and that controlling it requires the joint efforts of medical and social services, emergency responders, law enforcement, courts — and now, the building inspector.
The epidemic has so quickly overwhelmed public health and safety policy that it's hard to remember how fresh it is. Yet in a few years we have come to a stage where not only firefighters but doughnut shop employees and librarians are equipped with naloxone, an antidote to overdose. Doctors are changing their prescribing practices, and long-term recovery is increasingly assisted by less lethal drugs that satisfy the brain's cravings without risking overdose and death.
All of that is vital progress, but people are still dying at terrifying rates. For an opioid addict, one of the riskiest periods is immediately after rehab, when it is time to live in the community while resisting the lure of available drugs. At this stage the recommendation is often to take up residence in a so-called sober home, where other residents are in recovery and where alcohol and drugs are kept out. So much easier said than done.
The law, the ordinance and the voluntary certification program, conducted locally by Community Speaks Out, a dynamic grassroots organization begun by families of those who died from the grip of opioids, will address the existing disorganization in which unsecured sober homes can literally mean the difference between life and death. The ultimate measure will be whether more people survive the critical time of re-entry into community life. The evidence would be a decreased mortality rate, down from the count of seven deaths since 2014 in New London sober homes.
With its ordinance, New London is saying it won't permit unsafe or unsanitary homes for people struggling against addiction. We hope it will weed out operators who are only in the business, really, of being landlords — and using a moniker of "sober home" to attract tenants.
The ordinance, which goes into effect July 19, covers homes with five or more unrelated occupants. It calls for inspections of sober homes by the same three departments that inspect hotels, rooming houses, and convalescent homes: first the fire marshal, then a health officer, and then the building inspector. Without a licensing requirement those city departments often did not know what houses were in use as sober homes until EMTs responded to an overdose call.
A home that passes all three inspections will be eligible for a one-year license. A further step is to qualify under the new state law as a recovery residence, which prohibits sober homes from insinuating that they offer treatment services. Certification by an affiliate of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences — locally, Community Speaks Out — qualifies the sober home for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services online list of residences with beds available. The home must stock at least two doses of antidote and must train all residents in how to administer it.
Licensing, certification and any repairs required will raise the overhead for owners of sober homes, but advocates say they don't expect dramatic increases in rent. The going rate is about $140 a week plus an "administrative fee" for TV and supplies, often with a roommate paying the same amount. Managers are often residents whose compensation includes a break on the rent.
The new requirements ought to dampen the interest of any operators whose motive was to rent rooms in an old house and profit from an unregulated business opportunity.
Since the New London Opioid Action Team formed in 2017 it has steadily progressed in its strategy to prevent overdose deaths: flood the area with the antidote, naloxone; give those arrested for drug use a chance to enter treatment instead of jail; educate all ages about the dangers and ubiquity of opiates; lobby for federal funds for treatment and prevention; and now, license and certify recovery houses.
The city and its partners have turned concern into action. They are creating a model for communities fighting the opioid epidemic.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.
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