Sen. Murphy: Blaming addict blocks resources for opioid epidemic

This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register.  Above: Sen. Chris Murphy (left) speaks to New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman. 

By: Esteban L. Hernandez – New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN >> U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy has a theory about why a majority of his colleagues in Congress are reluctant to approve funding to address the country’s opioid epidemic that is taking the lives of Americans across the country every day.

“They blame the addict,” Murphy said Friday. “So the reason Congress hasn’t acted, I think, is because of this continued stigma about people with addiction. And as long as that stigma exists, people aren’t going to seek help and we’re not going to be able to get the funding.”

Murphy’s biting remarks about the public perception of drug addiction were delivered following a roundtable discussion convened to address last week’s string of overdoses in the city, three of which were fatal. The overdoses prompted a public health emergency warning from the city and elevated New Haven to the state’s epicenter for the opioid crisis. Three men were arrested by federal authorities on Monday in connection with the overdoses.

WATCH: Murphy speaks to media in New Haven

More than 50 community providers, public health officials and local doctors attended the meeting at New Haven police headquarters on Union Avenue. Connecticut U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3,and state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon also participated.

The meeting gave community providers from several agencies an opportunity to speak about their needs, which again and again echoed the need for added resources with the help of federal funding.

More than 100 people in the state have died of opioid overdoses during the first three months of this year, but federal funding has remained mostly stagnant. Some funding has been given to help local health centers, including two in New Haven.

DeLauro said the majority of Congress isn’t doing anything to address the opioid crisis. Legislation has been drafted and presented, but DeLauro said Friday’s meeting will give lawmakers an idea of where the money ought to be spent. She said forums with people in her district have identified some of the needs.

“It’s the same result, two issues: Funding and access — access to treatment,” DeLauro said.

U.S. Senate Republicans voted down an additional $600 million in emergency funding added as an amendment to the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which would expand programs addressing opioid substance use and increase access to naloxone, according to Murphy’s office. Murphy wants the emergency funding passed, though the bill is still being negotiated by Congress. Similarly, DeLaurointroduced the Access to Substance Abuse Treatment Act in March to provide $1 billion annually to support community clinics.

Yale-New Haven Hospital treated most of last week’s overdose victims. Dr. Andrew Ulrich, vice chairman of Emergency Services at YNHH, said he hopes money can be allocated to allow the hospital to expand existing services, including a program called Project ASSERT, which helps patients find treatment programs for substance use.

“The resources are always a big part of the solution,” Ulrich said.

Last week’s overdoses exhausted the city’s supply of naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. Responders were unaware the drug they were dealing with was not heroin, but a much more powerful opioid called fentanyl. This required more naloxone to combat the potentially fatal effects of the drug. Users told authorities they believed they were buying cocaine. Mayor Toni Harp, who could not be at much of the meeting due to a prior meeting, said afterward that she was thankful for Gov. Dannel Malloy’s emergency order to provide more naloxone to the city.

Deputy Director of Emergency Management Rick Fontana also thanked City Health Director Dr. Byron Kennedy for helping to bring more of the drug. Fontana helped generate the public health emergency message on June 23 at about 10 p.m.

“People were not happy about that,” Fontana said. “But we think it saved lives.”

Fontana added that the city’s emergency personnel need more Narcan, which is a brand name for naloxone medication. New Haven Acting Fire Chief Ralph Black agreed that the tool is critical in helping his personnel do their jobs. Esserman said he was meeting with several city officials later on Friday to determine how to get funding for more naloxone.

Following the roundtable, Murphy said he hopes last week’s tragedies help Congress understand the severity of the crisis.

“If you spend any time with people who are addicted to a powerful drug like heroin, you know that they need help. (And) if they get it, they can kick their addiction,” Murphy said. “Connecticut can’t do this without emergency federal resources.”

Reach Esteban L. Hernandez at 203-680-9901

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