Murphy, Courtney visit area to discuss heroin crisis

By:  Judy Benson and Lindsay Boyle
The Day

Groton Town Police and other local law enforcement leaders are hopeful after a Monday morning visit from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy that the region soon will see more federal dollars to fight the heroin epidemic.

Murphy, who met with law enforcement and other members of the Regional Community Enhancement Task Force at the Groton Town Police headquarters, spent most of his half-hour visit trying to learn more about the region's issue and asking members what resources would be most helpful to them.

"The one part that we in law enforcement find most distressing is at the time when we're seeing this spike (in overdoses) and this problem continuing on an upward trend, we're seeing a reduction in dollars coming in to address it," said Groton Town Police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr.

Also on Monday, another member of the state's congressional delegation, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, met with officials at United Community & Family Services in Norwich to learn about the role of prescription opioids in the heroin crisis and a new training program for physicians created in response.

ince prescription opioids are "clearly the pathway to heroin addiction," reducing the use of these medications is a critical step in addressing the crisis, Courtney said. As a result of the training, doctors at UCFS are issuing fewer opioid prescriptions.

During the meeting at Groton Town headquarters, Fusaro told Murphy that the detectives and officers sitting in the room, were pulled from existing staff within existing budgets to participate in the task force. In some cases, they were taken from other duties to focus on combating heroin.

Other members of the task force — ranging from prosecutors and parole officers to a member of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service — expressed similar sentiments.

Some explained that help from federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration goes a long way, especially when it comes to cases' prosecution.

Ledyard Police Chief John Rich pointed out that departments carry out prevention and education efforts in addition to enforcement efforts related to the crisis, which also costs money.

"As a chief of small police department — we're 21 members — we would not be able to have the impact that we've had in my town of Ledyard without a cooperative effort like this task force," Rich said.
He said any support Murphy could help provide for such regional collaborations would be "greatly appreciated."

Waterford Police Chief Brett Mahoney said that while the drug of choice has changed — for a time it was crack and cocaine, now it's heroin — addicts going to extreme lengths to feed their addictions has been around for years.

"I don't want to paint a horrendous picture here ... but as Chief (Louis J.) Fusaro Sr. said, (drug abuse) has been going on for decades and it's going to continue," Mahoney said. "We're just trying to put a dent in the deaths happening as a result."

Murphy's visit with the task force was prompted in part by the doubling of both accidental intoxication deaths and specifically heroin-related overdose deaths since 2012. His stop in Groton was just the first of five meetings with patients, health professionals, law enforcement and advocates around the state.

"A couple years ago, there was one Ebola case in the U.S., and we spent $4 billion to stop Ebola from coming," Murphy said, noting that more than 700 people died from accidental overdoses in Connecticut last year. More than 400 of those deaths were attributed to heroin. "There's something wrong when we can spend as a country $4 billion on one Ebola case and we can't muster any supplemental funding to deal with an epidemic that is real and pressing right now."

After the meeting, Fusaro Jr. called the visit from Murphy "a big deal."

"We appreciate getting visibility at other levels and we're hoping that it turns into more resources and assets in the region," Fusaro Jr. said after the meeting. "We've been talking about this for months. It's a problem that's not going away."

At UCFS, 10 recently hired primary care doctors and advanced practice registered nurses have received training in how to appropriately prescribe opioids, monitor patients and recognize signs of addiction, Dr. Ramindra Walia, chief medical officer of the clinic, told Courtney. All newly hired primary care providers will receive the training, which also promotes use of alternative therapies, including physical therapy, counseling, non-narcotic medications, meditation and other techniques.

"The training covers how to talk to patients, and what these medications are all about," Walia said. "There is a lot of pressure on the newest and least trained MDs and APRNs" to prescribe opioids.

The effect of the training is already being seen in the numbers of opioid prescriptions UCFS doctors are issuing, Walia said. In January through March of 2015, 2,172 prescriptions for opioids were given to UCFS patients. During the same three-month period this year, the number dropped to 1,546, he said.
"This has already made a difference this year," he said.

Physicians and APRNs learn in the training about the "red flags" that indicate a patient is addicted, and how to taper patients off of the medications and direct them to behavior health counselors, he said.

mong the signs that patients are addicted, he said, is when they tell their doctor that "only this medication works for me," and they refuse to try alternatives. The training also addresses how doctors and APRNs can counter the "ER concept of immediate relief," when they promote alternative remedies that may not offer the instant pain relief of prescription opioids, Walia said.

Courtney said UCFS was "getting ahead of the curve" by starting the training program, which was funded in-house with the help of a $2,000 grant from the Norwich Physicians Fund that paid for the creation of training videos.

"It's really impressive what you've done here," Courtney said.