Murphy forum: No shortage of funding needs for opioid crisis
Griswold — Emergency federal funds to help states address the opioid crisis should be used to add treatment and needle exchange programs, create supportive housing for recovering addicts and support community-run prevention and drug education initiatives.
Those were some of the ideas advanced Monday during a forum led by Sen. Chris Murphy about how the $1 billion in federal funds that will be made available nationwide through the recently passed Mental Health Reform Act, which Murphy sponsored, should be allocated.
“This is the first recognition by the federal government that this is an emergency,” Murphy said after the forum, attended by about 50 people that included the chief elected officials and state legislators from towns throughout the region. “We’ve carved out space on this issue that is truly bipartisan. Hopefully, this is the beginning, not the end of what the federal government is going to do.”
The law will make about $500 million available this year and next year, with each state receiving a portion based on the number of residents addicted to heroin and other opioids. The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which will administer the grants in Connecticut, held two meetings Monday with groups interested in applying by the Feb. 17 deadline. Funding will be released within the next few months, according to Mary Kate Mason, spokeswoman for DMHAS.
Angelo Callis, a youth and family therapist with Norwich Youth & Family Services, noted recent survey findings that clearly demonstrate that the opioid epidemic truly is an emergency that needs more resources. He urged that grant funds be used to “feed the grass” — the community-based programs that deal directly with active and would-be abusers — rather than on administration and bureaucratic expenses.
He noted that the Southeastern Regional Action Council’s 2015 youth survey, released in the fall, found that 12 percent of Norwich youths in grades 7 to 12 said they had misused pain medications, tranquilizers and other prescriptions drugs within the last month. That compared to 7 percent who recently drank alcohol, and 8 percent who had recently used marijuana.
“This was the first time ever that prescription drug use has surpassed alcohol and marijuana use,” he said.
The survey, which has been done since 2000, gathered information from 1,929 Norwich youths. A total of 7,493 youths from 10 area towns were surveyed.
Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey said the survey results should be a wake-up call for more action to address the opioid problem.
“This isn’t just in poor communities, it’s in all our communities,” she said.
Miranda Nagle, coordinator for Griswold PRIDE, a grassroots group that formed two years ago in response to a spike in overdoses there, said that in addition to funding to help the group continue its forums, prescription drug take-backs and mentoring work, the group has made advocating for regulation of sober houses a main priority. Sober houses, where recovering addicts often live after treatment, offer little or no supervision and often expose them to drugs again when they are at their most vulnerable, she and others said.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, urged funds be directed toward creating “supportive housing” where recovering addicts would get the supervision and treatment they need.
“Supportive housing is so much more than just a bed,” she said. “What we’re doing now is perpetuating a system that is not effective.”
Susan Dubb, public health nurse with the Uncas Health District, advocated for a needle exchange program where addicts could get free clean needles and interact with counselors who could lead them into treatment.
“If you can stop the spread of diseases like hepatitis C and B and HIV, we should consider it,” she said.
A shortage of beds in detoxification programs — where addicts go before entering a treatment program — is another area of need, said Dr. Nathan Siegel, chief of emergency services at The William W. Backus Hospital. Oftentimes, after an overdose patient is revived at the hospital, staff try unsuccessfully to find an available bed in a detoxification program, he said. Some addicts come to the emergency room seeking help even when they have not overdosed, and staff will make calls if they’re not busy, he said.
“It’s a teachable moment after these things happen,” he said. “This is a great time to intervene, but we’re at a loss to get them into these resources.”
Mason said detox facilities typically operate at about 85 percent capacity, but that it can be difficult to match specific patients with open beds because of transportation or other issues. Murphy said better use of technology to match patients and beds is needed.
In addition to funding for the opioid crisis, the Mental Health Act also requires that health insurers make it easier for people to access benefits for mental health care, Murphy said.
“This will help unlock the hindrances,” he said.