MIDDLETOWN >> U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro may have been in town to extol a $5.5 million grant to help the state’s efforts to curb the ballooning opioid crisis, but those most heartened by the news Tuesday morning were the unidentified Rushford clients who sat quietly in the crowd.
Afterward, one woman waited for DeLauro to chat with a few officials, then whispered a thank you in her ear, and the two — lawmaker and recovery patient — embraced.
“You made my day,” DeLauro told her, then encouraged her with: “One day at a time.”
Representatives of the Rushford center for substance use prevention and treatment, Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Middlesex Hospital and Middletown police and fire departments stood outside the facility with a clear view of the Connecticut River to praise the grant.
The money, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will support Connecticut’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and fund a number of initiatives, including the improvement of opioid prescribing practices, expanded access to medication-assisted treatment and an increase in the use of naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose.
The funding is part of the $1 billion set aside for the 21st Century Cures Act in December.
“This opioid epidemic requires a response from every part of our community, every part of our city, every part of our country. It is not sufficient just to say ‘we have an opioid crisis’ and leave it at that and get a quote in the newspaper,” DeLauro said. “It is about those of us who serve in elected office where we have the opportunity to provide resources, that we do so. That is our job.”
Today, 90 Americans die daily of overdoses: more than twice the rate in 2013, she said. In 2015, over 33,000 Americans died of opioid or heroin overdoses — more than the number killed in car accidents.
Illegal drug use engenders the shame that addicts experience every day, the congresswoman said.
At a recent opioids panel at the Community Health Center in Middletown, “a mother got up and she said, ‘if my daughter had broken her leg or her arm, we would have had people flocking into our home to bring us food, to do whatever we needed to do to help us make our way,’” DeLauro said.
“‘Since my daughter is addicted, we don’t hear from anyone. No one comes by — it’s as if no one cares about what’s happening,’” the woman said according to DeLauro.
That’s why it’s critical to eradicate the stigma, DeLauro said.
She compared the federal disaster relief fund, used in the aftermath of tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters to rebuild devastated areas, to the lack of a comparable resource for public health emergencies.
“Two years ago, I put in legislation that called for $5 billion to be able to do something about the crisis, whether it was an opioid crisis, whether it was ebola, Zika, no matter what it is, pandemic flu — we need that fund,” DeLauro said, to be at parity with the disaster relief fund “because public health emergencies are disasters.”
The new federal budget proposal for 2017-18 concerns DeLauro, she said, after hearing talk about an 18 percent cut to HHS lawmakers expect in the next few weeks.
At the end of last week, the New York Times received leaked documents from the (Trump) administration that suggest it may slash 95 percent from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, DeLauro said.
“That’s unconscionable. I will wait to see what happens in a couple weeks to see where we go,” she said.
“This crisis sees no boundaries,” said Nancy Navarretta, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. “These people are from all walks of life: communities, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses have all been affected.”
The money, Navarretta said, will pay for local prevention councils and go to colleges to support on-campus prevention efforts. “It will also provide training on alternative treatments for pain management, working to reduce the number of opioids prescribed and encourage treatments that are nonaddictive.”
DeLauro said she will urge the FDA to reclassify nalaxone from a prescription to an over-the-counter medicine to allow more access to the drug.
“One of the things that we’ve seen through the years, despite interventions that we’ve made in trying to stem the tide of these opioid overdoses, is the number continues to go up,” said Dr. Craig Allen, who pointed to the availability and potency of heroin on the streets, “and, over the last few years, the introduction of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.”
The number of people dying with drugs like fentanyl in their system, he said, rose from 14 in 2012 to well over 400 in 2016.
“The importance of getting medication-assisted treatment can’t be overstated,” Allen said. Ten percent who try to break their addiction without intervention are successful, but 90 percent who try by abstention will relapse.
Dr. Jeff Shelton is chair of Middlesex Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry. “It’s important to state that treatment does work and recovery does happen and I see it every single day. One of the biggest challenges people who are struggling have is gaining hope.”
The other is the stigma, he said.
When it comes to nalaxone, “I’ll prescribe it to anybody. There was a little old lady here who I told, ‘you’ve got to have a Narcan (brand name of naloxone) script. But the pharmacist called me and said, ‘no one is filling your scripts.’
“‘That’s fascinating, why is that?’” Shelton said to himself. It wasn’t until a patient said, “‘I’m scared they’re going to think I’m an addict,’” that he realized why.
His patient had come in because a member of her family had been using heroin.
Assistant Chief Jay Woron, who is also EMS chief for the Middletown Fire Department, said that since July 2015, paramedics and firefighters have been able to reverse 88 opioid overdoses with naloxone.
Middletown Fire Department Chief Robert Kronenberger acknowledged the life-saving properties of naloxone, but added, “Narcan is a great resource, but one thing is, we don’t want it viewed as a magic drug because there’s so much more that comes with it.”
Betsy Chadwick, director of the Middlesex County Substance Abuse Action Council, said when she had recently visited her car mechanic, he mentioned his girlfriend had been taking Vicodin following surgery. However, “she kept taking it because it felt so good,” she said.
The two talked about how the overuse of just one pain prescription could lead to addiction. “She got rid of it,” Chadwick said. “I thought, ‘this is one less person who has to go through the horror of it.’”
For perspective, DeLauro said millions of federal dollars are earmarked for infrastructure but nowhere near enough has been focused on battling the opioid epidemic.
“Our efforts here are not roads and bridges and parks and helicopters, which we fund at the federal level. The money that needs to be available is for saving lives. And we can’t lose track of that,” she said.
The congresswoman told those gathered that she constantly encouraging people to come to Washington, D.C., and give testimony.
“When an individual stands up and says, ‘this is who I am. This is what my life has been about. This is what I’m struggling with, and what you are doing can help me turn my life around — it can help give me a future.’”