Citing the escalating incidence of opioid addiction and overdoses in Connecticut, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Monday that the state needs a “comprehensive, multifaceted” approach to combat the problem and identify areas in which federal funds might support those efforts.
More than a dozen educators, physicians, law-enforcement representatives, substance-abuse experts, public-health professionals, and members of advocacy groups joined Blumenthal at the standing-room-only event at the offices of Community Mental Health Affiliates in New Britain. Also attending were two young adults who were in recovery after years of addiction that led to their incarceration and eventual treatment, along with a mother who lost her 26-year-old son to an overdose.
“Drug addiction among young people is a horrendous and life-threatening epidemic – a deadly epidemic, as we have seen in the last few days,” Blumenthal said, referring to the nine heroin overdoses, one of them fatal, that occurred in New London County this past weekend.
Blumenthal said that educators, physicians, social services and lawmakers must work together. “Law enforcement is just the tip of the spear,” he said. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of [this] public-health crisis.”
As evidence of the rising crisis, Blumenthal noted that in 2012 Connecticut saw 195 fatal heroin, morphine or codeine overdoses. By 2015 that number had more than doubled, with 415 such overdose deaths reported.
While drug abuse, addiction and overdose affect people of all ages; many noted that those between the ages of 18 to 25 are at increased risk. Several called for taking a close look at prescribing practices regarding prescription painkillers, as many young people’s first experiences with opioid use involves a drug prescribed to them to treat pain related to conditions such as broken bones and wisdom tooth surgery. Blumenthal noted, the 2013 Youth Behavior Survey of Connecticut found that 11.1 percent of respondents had used a prescription drug to get high one or more times in their life.
Allison Kernan, 23, of Fairfield, and Lance Supersad, 20, of Bridgeport, shared their stories of experimenting with and becoming addicted to drugs as teenagers and pointed to the vital role support groups, in their cases, the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, had played in their becoming and remaining drug-free. Supersad also credited law enforcement for his personal turnaround. “I didn’t know I was an addict until I was arrested.”
Karen Zaorski of Wolcott spoke about the 2010 overdose death of her son Ray “three days shy of his 27th birthday.” She highlighted the need for evidence-based treatment and for awareness of the way insurance coverage is often denied for addiction treatment. “Families are being denied coverage for treatment and recovery,” she said, noting that she was told, ‘Your son is not sick enough’ to warrant coverage for his treatment. “Young people are asking for help and finding doors continuing to be shut,” she said.
Among other key issues participants discussed:
• The need for insurance parity allowing addiction to be treated as a mental illness.
• A multi-pronged effort bringing together educators, law enforcement, parents, physicians, lawmakers and community advocates to tackle addiction’s many facets.
• Development, implementation and enforcement of prescribing guidelines for physicians, including dentists, that would reduce young people’s access to powerful and addictive painkillers and curb the extent to which those substances circulate in the community.
• Wider access and judicious use of Narcan, a drug that can save lives by reversing overdoses when administered quickly. While the drug is a powerful tool, participants agreed its use must be coordinated with a transition to treatment for drug addiction.
• Early education of young people that makes clear the real, serious consequences of drug use, emphasizing that prescription drugs are not safe to experiment with.