Addiction a disease lacking adequate response as a health crisis, forum speakers say
New London — After a moment of silence Tuesday for the overdose death of a 21-year-old Waterford resident earlier in the day, a roomful of medical, recovery and law enforcement experts along with families who’ve struggled with opiate addiction pleaded for it to be treated like a disease that has become a public health emergency.
“Three of my five children are heroin addicts,” Tammy Sisco of Gales Ferry said during the forum at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, called by Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “One of my sons in is in prison, and my daughter overdosed on Jan. 28 and survived. But she’s still not in a treatment facility. She’s still out there shooting.”
Sisco addressed her remarks to Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, who was invited to the forum to hear from the community about the spike in opiate overdoses and deaths that began Jan. 27.
She said she has had her three children “in and out of every treatment facility in this state” with little success, because the three- or five-month-long stays they are allotted aren’t enough.
“Twelve months is the minimum with heroin, and you need maintenance after that,” she said.
So-called sober houses, where recovering addicts are often housed, are often located in drug-infested neighborhoods where addicts easily relapse, she said.
Two of her children became addicted after using prescription opiates for injuries, and the third turned to heroin after marijuana, she said.
Joseph de la Cruz of Groton, who with his wife, Tammy, started Community Speaks Out to combat the epidemic after their son became addicted, also pointed to easy access to prescription pain medications as a main source of the problem.
Prescription opiates should have stronger warning labels and are given too readily to youths for everything from sports injuries to wisdom tooth extractions, he said.
“I know 40 kids who are addicted,” said de la Cruz, who coaches several youth sports teams. “Once you’re arresting someone who’s addicted, it’s too late.”
“We need to treat it like the disease that it is,” added Tammy de la Cruz.
Dr. Deirdre Cronin, emergency department physician at L+M who treated many of the 28 overdose patients there over the last three weeks, said a national database for opiate prescriptions is needed, so that doctors can check whether patients have received prescriptions in other states.
The current database is incomplete, she said. Laws are also needed requiring patients sign a prescription pain medication contract pledging that they will not sell or misuse their medications, she said.
“There’s nothing harder in my job than the revolving door that addiction can be,” she said.
She and other physicians are often frustrated, she said, at not being able to get overdose patients into treatment immediately because of lack of available beds or other obstacles.
L+M staff and emergency crews have been at the front lines of the recent spike, handling the majority of recent overdose patients.
Bill Stanley, vice president for development and community relations, called it the result of "the perfect storm."
"Heroin is more powerful than it has ever been, more affordable than it's ever been, and more accessible than it's ever been," he said.
Margie and Bill Reardon of Niantic, who lost their son Mark Wyzykowski to an overdose two years ago, called for more public education about the signs of addiction and where to turn for help.
“He was using for three months, and we had no idea he was doing it,” Margie Reardon said. “One day he took a little too much.”
Botticelli said federal efforts are focusing on curtailing the overprescribing of opiates, as well as improving prescription drug monitoring programs.
“We know we have big gaps between people who need treatment and people who are getting it,” he said. “We need more physicians who can provide treatment.”
President Barack Obama’s budget request for $1.1 billion to fight opiate abuse and improve treatment access would also ramp up drug interdiction efforts, he said.
“That’s what we did with tobacco. We got it out of our communities,” he said.
Courtney and Blumenthal have requested a $600 million emergency appropriation to respond to the immediate crisis.
They also agreed with the need for stricter rules for prescription opiates that would prohibit giving them to children, stronger warning labels and more education for prescribing physicians.
“The FDA has been an utter, abject failure in protecting us,” Blumenthal said.
In response to a request this week from Groton Town Police Chief Louis Fusaro Jr., the Office of National Drug Control Policy has agreed to initiate an effort to designate New London County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking County.
Robert Lawlor Jr., drug intelligence officer for the Connecticut office of the agency, said the designation would bring in more resources to combat the problem.
Three other counties in Connecticut already have the designation — Hartford, New Haven and Fairfield, he said.
Botticelli agreed with many of the speakers that heroin addiction should be treated like a disease “and like any disease, there should be treatment on demand.”
He said his agency is working to expand access to anti-addiction medications and treatment through government health insurance programs, and urged people to complain to state and federal insurance overseers when private insurers refuse to cover treatment.
“You’ve got to document it, and you need to pressure private insurance companies,” he said.
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