Opiate epidemic: Community looks for answers as death toll rises

More than 100 people came out Monday night for a Community Conversation on Opiate Addiction at Sacred Heart University, an event hosted by several Fairfield County state legislators and attended by local first selectmen, police chiefs and leaders of multiple assistance organizations.

Unfortunately, Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services had to cancel her attendance shortly before the meeting was set to begin and no alternate from the department was able to come in her place.

But the meeting, run primarily by Rep. Brenda Kupchick (R-132) and Rep. Dave Rutigliano (R-123), yielded a wealth of information on the growing use of heroin in Connecticut, ideas for getting help with addiction, and suggestions for future legislation.

“My heart breaks for those who have been touched by this addiction epidemic,” said Rutigliano after hearing heartfelt stories from residents about their experiences with loved ones addicted to opiates.

“I want to thank everyone for coming out and sharing their moving stories, because I, along with other legislators, want to find a substantive way to fight this drug scourge,” he added. “In the coming weeks, we will be meeting on possible opiate legislation for the new legislative session.”

HeroinKillCT and Connecticut Heroin Task Force co-founder Theresa Doonan, who lost a son to heroin, told the audience that there were more than 400 heroin-related deaths in 2015 in Connecticut and another 100 to 125 deaths associated with other opiates — both up sharply from previous years.

She said the problems include the lack of programs to help addicted people, especially teenagers, who cannot be forced into rehab programs by their parents without court orders, which are sometimes denied.

Opiate epidemic

Fairfield police Chief Gary MacNamara listed several recommendations for improving the growing problem, including:

  • Funding for awareness.

  • Proper problem identification — especially the “painkiller pathway,”  the fact that many people become addicted to painkillers after having them prescribed by a physician and then switching to heroin as a much lower cost alternative because of the high cost of the prescriptions or the inability to have them refilled.

  • Training for police officers, school officials and others to spot the signs of addiction.

  • Alternatives for police to help before arresting.

  • Targeting and arresting the dealers.

  • Reducing the crime associated with addiction.

Trumbull police Chief Michael Lombardo added that prevention needs to start at home, but said the problem must be attacked at the local, state and federal levels and that ultimately, it should be seen as “a mental health issue” and the police need to focus on helping people first.

Never too early to start learning

A local pediatrician stressed the need for age-appropriate education to begin before middle school.

First Selectman Tim Herbst added that he believes school resource officers are a vital part of the solution because they connect school officials and teachers directly with police, allow young people to develop positive relationships with law enforcement, make police directly involved in drug education, and help gather intelligence on the local drug situation.

Reasons for the rise

Virtually everyone was in agreement that the legislature needs to work on providing more funding for more programs to confront the “epidemic,” especially because there are so many factors contributing to the rise in addiction.

Some of the reasons cited were:

  • Physicians writing prescriptions for a 30-day supply of opioid painkillers when a smaller number might suffice, partially to avoid the expense of another appointment or the insurance cost of multiple prescriptions.

  • Shortage of resources for people to seek help after traumatic events.

  • Relative ease of getting heroin in virtually any school within a few hours.

  • Lack of awareness of the lethality of heroin.

  • Significant difference in potency of today’s heroin.

The most frequently cited issue was the fact that insurance almost never covers treatment programs and even a few weeks of treatment can cost more than $10,000.

Many families have gone bankrupt trying to help family members.

“So many people have experienced the pain of a loved one addicted to opiates, myself included; sadly, some have lost their loved ones to overdoses,” said Kupchick in response to those who offered possible solutions on ways our state can combat the growing opiate addiction epidemic across the state.

“Opiate addiction has become a crisis in our community to the degree that I have never witnessed in my lifetime,” she added. “Some of what I learned from the forum is we need to work on prevention, awareness, communication with our youth, tighter controls on prescription opiates, and increased access to quality treatment that's covered by insurance like any other illness. I also learned we need keep talking.”

Legislative action

In Connecticut, there is an additional problem with Narcan, the drug that is now carried by Trumbull police and that has saved many lives in Trumbull just this year.

Although it may be purchased over the counter in New York and Massachusetts, it still requires a prescription in Connecticut and is very expensive.

The legislators and members of the audience heard from a local couple about a program in North Carolina that allows patients in recovery to live at almost no cost. They told the room that their son had been living there for two years.

This raised calls for the legislators and other officials to investigate how a similar program could be reproduced in Connecticut and made part of the 2016 legislative agenda.

The program, called TROSA, is a long-term residential program for people struggling with addiction problems that is funded by donations and the work of the residents, who learn skills and work in lawn care, furniture moving and other services to help fund their recovery.

All the officials in attendance promised to continue to increase their efforts to address the issue.