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Somers: Legislators again will dedicate full day to opioid-related bills

As overdoses continue to kill 1,000 people a year in Connecticut, state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the Public Health Committee again will dedicate a day to bills that address the problem.

Somers, a ranking member and former co-chair of the committee, said bills raised this session consider emergency response, access to care and state regulations as they relate to prevention, treatment and recovery.

“We’re trying to look at (the crisis) in the most holistic way we can,” she said. “As you can probably imagine, it’s not easy.”

Overdose-related emergency room visits and fatal overdoses may be leveling off in Connecticut, per data from the state Department of Public Health and the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. But the rates for visits and fatal overdoses still are higher than in most other states.

“People on both sides recognize the significance of what the epidemic has led to,” Somers said. “We often hear from grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and families that have been torn apart."

“I don’t think there’s anybody in the legislature that has not been touched by this crisis,” she said.

The bills

Among the bills being considered this session is H.B. No. 6131, which would require anyone who receives the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to be taken to a treatment facility. Right now, a person who receives naloxone from a first responder can decline to be transported if he or she becomes conscious and alert.

State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said he and the other three legislators who introduced the bill “feel strongly that, by forcing a person to go to the hospital, they might have a better shot of attaining what’s known as a moment of clarity, where through the help of a doctor or — even better — a recovery coach, they might decide they’re going to try to get help and not necessarily go right back to using 10 minutes later.”

Recovery coaches, who help people navigate the complex process of getting and staying sober, and often are in recovery themselves, are becoming more prevalent in the state.

Somers, who co-sponsored the bill, said its language eventually could include places other than hospital emergency rooms, where the cost of care is high.

Another bill, H.B. 5900, would allow police to detain people who are high on drugs and commit them to a 72-hour hospital stay if the people are a danger to themselves or others. Such a statute already exists for people who are having mental health-related episodes.

Scanlon, who also introduced that bill, said the idea behind both bills is the same. “When they’re not on the street using drugs and ... doing harm to themselves, perhaps in that break, they can break from this disease,” he said.

Somers, who is not a co-sponsor of H.B. 5900, said she would endorse the idea only if it doesn’t violate people’s rights. “It’s always a thin line,” said Somers, who expects a lively discussion on the bill.

Treatment in correctional facilities

A third bill, H.B. 5729, would require the state Department of Correction to provide medication-assisted treatment — or the combination of therapy and medications that reduce withdrawal symptoms — in all of its facilities.

In a move that surprised advocates of medication-assisted treatment in jails and prisons, Gov. Ned Lamont included $2 million in 2020 and $6 million in 2021 for such treatment in his proposed $43 billion, two-year state budget.

“There was a lot of interest at the last (General Assembly) session in providing the DOC an opportunity to move treatment forward, it just didn’t get funding,” said Dr. Kathleen Maurer, who runs addiction services for the agency. “So we were all shocked at this.”

DOC already provides either methadone, Vivitrol or Subutex and at least once-a-week counseling for about 225 inmates in six facilities: the correctional centers in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers and the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Uncasville, whose program is just three months old.

Most participating inmates were on one of the medications before entering prison, although some are introduced to it just before they’re released, Maurer said.

The funding, if it remains in the budget, will allow DOC to introduce more people to the medications that can help them stay sober and out of trouble with the law, Maurer said. “Research shows treatment with methadone and buprenorphine (Subutex) reduces overdose deaths, criminological behavior, recidivism ... and community health care costs,” she said. “The state will get its money out of this.”

In an email, Sam Marullo, a Yale University law student who helped Rhode Island bring medication-assisted treatment to its prisons in 2016, said the funding “would bring Connecticut to the leading edge of states fighting the opioid epidemic.”

Only Rhode Island and Vermont offer the treatment in all of their correctional facilities, said Marullo, who said former prisoners make up more than half of Connecticut’s overdose deaths each year.

Beyond the likely reduction in overdose deaths and financial savings in reduced recidivism, Maurer said treatment in prisons is a good idea because DOC is required to provide the “evidence-based standard of care” for all health-related issues.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said medication-assisted treatment "has proved to be clinically effective" but "is greatly underused."

Maurer said prisons nationwide increasingly are adopting the model.

“These are human beings who we have an opportunity to treat,” she said. “We can change the arc of their lives. We can help them become productive members of the community.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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