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State legislature adopts New London's approach to combat opioid addiction

New London's innovative approach to combating the opioid crisis with the use of peer navigators already has gained statewide recognition.

Now, municipalities across the state will have the opportunity to duplicate the city's success. The state legislature has adopted a bill that creates a statewide pilot program to mirror New London’s.

An Act Concerning Opioids provides state funding of between $150,000 and $175,000 for up to five communities looking to hire at least two navigators.

In New London, navigators are people with lived experience of substance abuse disorder who develop relationships with people struggling with addiction and provide nonmedical services in collaboration with health professionals authorized to prescribe medication for opioid use disorder.

The bill, first raised by state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, received unanimous support in the House last week and again in the Senate on Monday. It awaits a signature by the governor.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, ranking member of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, testified on Monday in support of the bill, crediting New London for starting the program and calling it “a blanket of hope wrapped around those who have none.”

“It’s very different from any other opioid bill we have passed,” Somers said. “Even though the state has been on the forefront of some cutting edge bills and legislation to address the opioid problem, we have it’s only made a dent in what we need to do.”

New London started its program, known as the Coordinated Access, Resources, Engagement and Support project in 2017, in part as a response to a growing number of overdoses in the city. The city’s fire and police departments were being inundated with calls for service.

New London Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein was hired by Mayor Michael Passero in 2016 and tasked with addressing the opioid addiction problem. Milstein spearheaded the CARES initiative and said the program is about “meeting people where they are” and providing for their needs and steering them toward recovery.

Milstein collaborated with Alliance for Living and Ledge Light Health District to design the program and hire three part-time recovery navigators in 2018.

First responders, health care providers, city government and nonprofits all were involved in the discussions and training sessions that followed. Milstein said the program has led to a drop in overdoses, medical transports and interactions between struggling individuals and police.

Navigators are helping connect individuals not only with resources to start recovery but basic needs such as food, housing or employment, Milstein said.

The CARES project has since expanded to five full-time navigators working in New London County. The program is run by the Alliance for Living, whose President and CEO Kelly Thompson said the program is successful because of the navigators.

“The navigator’s engagements with community members are grounded in the principles of Harm Reduction, which is an evidence-based practice that centers offering support and science-based information about drug use and health in a nonjudgmental and supportive way,” Thompson said.

Alliance for Living additionally has two clinicians who are able to prescribe medication for substance use disorder either on a mobile unit or at its New London office. 

“Removing the barrier to people accessing medication when they want it is a huge success of our model,” Thompson said. “We need all communities to adopt a similar approach as the punitive measures of the past don’t work and stigmatize and punish people who use drugs and/or have a substance use disorder.”

Milstein said the impact has been enormous in New London and she is excited to see support for a statewide initiative. “Lives are going to be saved and restored in our great state and I’m proud to be a part of that,” she said.

“The CARES program may be the most comprehensive and compassionate harm reduction program in the state,” Dr. Robert Heimer, a professor of epidemiology and pharmacology at Yale University, said in written testimony in support of the bill. He provides training and evaluation for New London’s CARES project.

“I have seen the program grow, the area the navigators cover expand, the competency of the navigators increase and their impact on the community increasingly appreciated by elected officials, police and emergency first responders, social service organizations and drug treatment providers,” he said.

Heimer said 220 people have started opioid medication through the CARES project. And while the pandemic impacted the program, Heimer said navigators maintained contact in the community and the project was able to create respite housing for COVID-19-positive patients with unstable housing to prevent them from becoming “super spreaders.”

The bill requires the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to establish a pilot program and provide funding for up to five communities by Jan. 1, 2022. Each participating community must form a team of at least two navigators who will travel throughout the community to address health care and social needs of individuals with opioid use disorder and complete regular training.

The bill additionally requires that the state Department of Public Health by Jan. 1, 2022, establish guidelines for use of “evidence-based, non-pharmaceutical therapies to treat chronic pain and conduct outreach activities to raise awareness.”

Among all of the co-sponsors and supporters of the bill, Milstein singled out state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, a member of the Public Health Committee, for her advocacy.

“Her determination, her tenacity and her commitment is just extraordinary,” Milstein said.

g.smith@theday.com

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