BRISTOL – When it comes to the opioid addiction epidemic, there’s good news and bad news, said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.
Murphy and Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu hosted a roundtable discussion on the epidemic Friday morning at City Hall.
First the bad news, Murphy said.
“We are not making the progress we should be making. The chief medical examiner’s office reported that in the first six months of 2019, 545 people died of drug overdoses in the state. That puts us on pace to have more individuals die of overdose in 2019 than 2018.”
“It looks like it’s going to be a small increase but an increase nonetheless, which is especially heartbreaking given how much effort we have put into trying to solve this epidemic,” he said.
Murphy noted that overdose deaths are not even an accurate way to measure the scope of the epidemic because it doesn’t take into account how families are ruined even when a family member’s addiction isn’t fatal.
“The good news is we are still ramping up a lot of our community collaboratives, and the dollars coming from the federal government and some non-monetary initiatives are just beginning to be realized,” he said.
Murphy said the Centers for Disease Control just announced $6 million for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the first year of a three year grant, to track overdose data “as closely to real time as possible.”
Right now, the Department of Public Health tracks deaths on a six month basis, he said. “We really need to be seeing data in real time to understand which communities are attacking the problem with success, and which aren’t, so we can learn from each other.”
The Connecticut Department of Labor will be getting a $4.7 million federal grant to put addiction navigators into each of the state’s American Job Center hubs, to work with people who are either in addiction or in recovery, he said.
Connecticut has been receiving more federal money through the Opioid Response grants program, he said, “to help community health centers and local departments of public health and emergency rooms staff up with resources to try to meet the epidemic where it is.”
The budget bill Congress is about to vote on is expected to have about $3.5 billion in emergency funding for opioid addiction, including $1.5 billion for the states, plus $800 million for the National Institutes of Health to do research on addiction and developing pain management alternatives to opioids, he said.
The addiction numbers are stunning, he said. “In 2017, we were still writing 58 opioid prescriptions for every 100 Americans. That’s nuts. We’ve finally seen the percentage of opioid prescriptions come down, after decades of increasing, but remember we’re writing more of these prescriptions in the United States than the rest of the world combined.”
Murphy said he has focused most of his energy in Congress on trying to change insurance practices that encourage the prescription of opioids and discourage addicts from getting coverage for addiction treatment.
The Mental Health Parity Act, which passed 10 years ago, is supposed to guarantee coverage for addiction treatment, but insurance companies threw many bureaucratic hurdles in the way, he said.
Murphy said he is partnering with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, to strengthen requirements for treatment coverage.
Zoppo-Sassu said the Mayor’s Opioid Task Force, in its 18 months of existence so far, has hosted many discussions on these issues.
The task force has also used grant money to produce and distribute two brochures listing community resources for addicts, one aimed at the general public and one specifically for people who have just survived an overdose. Sadly, the one for overdose survivors has already had to be reprinted twice, she said.
She announced that the new City of Bristol Recovery Alliance, which is a partnership with the police department, Bristol Hospital and several of the community agencies that participated in the discussion, is about to launch Friday, Nov. 1.
Andrew Lim, Bristol Hospital ER medical director, explained that COBRA grew out of the way the emergency room’s response to overdose patients has evolved from stabilizing patients and discharging them to prescribing the overdose emergency medication Narcan so families can help if a patient has another overdose at home.
“Finally, the time was right to step things up and wrap all the resources we have in the city to bring everyone together so we could be on the same page and do everything necessary to get patients help,” he said.
COBRA will mean anyone picked up by the police for drug use will be given the option to go to jail or to the hospital for recovery assistance, Lim said. “We can get them feeling better in the moment, and that’s half the battle, so they can get their thoughts together about where they need to go.”
Then the ER can put them in contact immediately with recovery coaches and community agencies that can help them on the path to recovery, he said.
Zoppo-Sassu concluded the meeting by unveiling the first of 13 public service announcement videos the Opioid Task Force has produced, featuring city residents talking about the impact opioid abuse has had on them or their families and friends. The video was themed “Bristol – A Hopeful City.”
The videos will be released on all digital platforms on Tuesday, Nov. 12, she said.
Zoppo-Sassu also encouraged the public to attend the Mayor’s Opioid Tax Force’s next meeting, which will be Thursday, Oct. 17, at 6:30 p.m. in the first floor meeting room at City Hall.
Also participating in the discussion were: Marco Palmieri, director of health for Bristol and Burlington; Michael Askew, director of recovery advocacy Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery; Lauren Siembab, opioid services coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services; Sabrina Trocchi, chief operating officer for Wheeler Clinic; Courtney Pope, director for behavioral health services in Bristol for Wheeler Clinic; Jennifer Chadukiewicz, recovery coach program manager for CCAR, who identified herself as being in long term recovery; and Meaghan DeFazio, Bristol Hospital ER nurse manager.