U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy met Friday with members of Bristol’s opioid task force to discuss upcoming federal legislation that holds insurance companies accountable for offering alternative forms of pain management and covering addiction treatment.
“We are making progress, [but] not the progress we should be making in this state,” he said, addressing Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu and advocates for the opioid-recovering community.
The chief medical examiner’s office reported that 554 people died of opioid overdoses from January through June of this year. The total number of deaths in 2019 is expected to exceed last year’s total. Murphy called the increase in overdose deaths “heartbreaking, given how much effort we have put into trying to solve this epidemic.”
“Overdose deaths are frankly not an accurate way to measure the scope of this epidemic,” he added. “Lives are changed [and] families are ruined even when individuals don’t pay the ultimate cost for that addiction.”
Murphy said the Senate will soon vote on a budget bill with a measure that allocates $3.5 billion to an emergency opioid crisis fund. Of that fund, $1.5 billion will go to state grants and $800 million will go to the National Institutes of Health for research to develop other forms of pain management besides opioids.
“That really is where we’re failing, addressing upfront the ways in which we can manage people’s pain such that they never ever take a pain pill,” Murphy said. “We’re still seeing 80% of the folks who end up in overdoses on prescription pain medications."
Along with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Murphy is hoping to pass the 2019 Mental Health Parity Act, a followup to 2008 legislation that included laws on addiction equity.
“[That act] says that you’re supposed to have an addiction benefit that’s just as good as the benefits for a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis,” Murphy said. “But everybody knows you run into bureaucratic hurtle after bureaucratic hurtle when you try to get an insurance company to pay for your addiction treatment."
The 2019 act will give the government the responsibility to audit a set of insurers every year to make certain the companies are not creating unnecessary “red tape” preconditions that make it difficult for people to access addiction benefits. Murphy also said insurance companies must cover other forms of pain treatment like physical therapy and acupuncture.
“Insurers need to be more willing to prescribe pain treatment that isn’t just the pill,” he said. “We’ve got to force insurance companies to do better and be creative."
Besides the coming bills, Murphy also explained two ongoing funding initiatives. The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that the Connecticut Department of Health will receive a $6 million grant as part of a three-year agreement between state and local governments to track overdoses in real time.
The Department of Labor also gave the state $4.7 million to help people overcoming opioid addiction find work and stay employed. Zoppo-Sassu said addiction has increasingly impacted Bristol’s manufacturing workforce.
“We have dozens, if not more, of manufacturing jobs that go unfilled every day in our industrial parks," she said. “These are not just jobs, [but] high-paying, high-tech careers that our manufacturers are having trouble filling. You have to go to work and use these machines, and you have to be sober. ... When that becomes an obstacle, it affects our employers as well.
“We have tried really hard in Bristol to be that recovery friendly community...but there’s still stigma. Conversations like this, [and] support from the state and federal government are going to continue to loosen those binds.”