Needles in a haystack: Seeking solutions for the heroin epidemic

The community forum at Hudson Valley Community College, hosted and moderated by Senator Kathy Marchione (center), on preventing heroin and opioid addiction featured an expert panel and was well-attended with approximately 300 people filling the college’s Bulmer Telecommunications Center Auditorium and a nearby overflow room. Photo credit: Konrad Odhiambo, Hudson Valley Community College.

Tyler McNeil, Staff Writer

“I had no idea my husband was an addict. He was a good man. He had a job,” she said.

Martel found out about her husband’s struggle with addiction after an arrest. Things went from bad to worse as treatment was ineffective and within months he was found dead from an overdose in a gas station bathroom. Martel was pregnant at the time.

Stories like Cassandra Martel’s are becoming increasingly common.

Her personal story verified much of what was said at the community forum hosted by the New York State Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction at Hudson Valley. As she told her story, the approximately 250 people in attendance were reminded of the toll that the growing heroin epidemic has taken on families locally and regionally.

During the event, which lasted four hours, an expert panel discussed the growing problem from a variety of perspectives including law enforcement, educational, medical, legislative, and treatment professionals. Senator Kathy Marchione, local representative and member of the task force, moderated the event.

“I viewed a heroin addict as someone who was homeless, had no money and had no feelings,” said Martel.

Experts described how a rise in heroin use has affected all types of people and communities.

“It’s not an inner city issue, it’s a rural and suburban issue as well,” said Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo.

“Over the past five years, the county has received information on a upsurge in heroin and opiates,” said Katherine G. Alonge-Coons, Commissioner of Rensselaer County Mental Health. “The addiction crosses economic, gender, race, geographic, age lines lines like never before.”

New York State Oasis reports a 53.4 percent increase in opioid admissions in Rensselaer County from 2008 to 2012. Admissions for heroin addicts are now higher than admissions for alcoholism in Rensselaer County.

Despite rising rates of addicts being treated for opiates, many more who seek treatment are denied access because insurance often doesn’t cover it. This problem was cited by Martel, as well as Lisa Wickens, Deputy Director for the Office of Health Systems Management at NYS Department of Health and Licensed Nurse of 23 years.

Wickens was not only an expert panelist, but also a victim of the lethal effects of heroin. She lost a son to an overdose in 2004, and has a second son still struggling with addiction.

“[Insurance companies] said ‘Your child needs to fail several times in outpatient therapy before we can get your child in inpatient therapy,” said Wickens.

Lawmakers hope to bring changes to the holes in insurance coverage for addiction during this year’s legislative session.

“We have situation where when people get out of detox, they go to get treatment but the insurance company says, ‘We’ll give you three days, and nobody is going to get off heroin in three days,” said State Senator Joseph  Robach.

Insurance companies often claim that inpatient treatment for an addict is not “medically necessary” until the situation becomes severe.

“Insurance companies have not drawn a parallel between a medical condition and addiction,” said Dan Almasi, of the Columbia County Department of Human Services. “[Insurance companies] have been allowed to get away with that not reimbursing, not covering because the consensus is heroin addicts do not deserve to be treated.”

Another problem that drew discussion was inadequate funding for treatment and prevention services from the state.

“State aid for treatment providers is going away. […] we used to receive [deficit funding] because of nonprofits [and] we were obligated to treat people who had no means to pay for treatment,” said Beth Schuster, executive director of Twin County Recovery Services for 26 years.

“We are still obligated to provide those services. However, the money that we used to get is now going away or in some cases, it’s gone,” said Schuster.

“The fact of the matter is, prevention education is losing funding on a federal and state level,” said Phil Stack of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State, Inc., who is a former addict himself.

“Educators are expected to do less as the [heroin and opioid] problems are growing,” said Stack.

While the task force will be holding community forums across the state and developing legislation, there are steps being taken in the short term.

Senator Phil Boyle, chairman of the task force, believes the distribution of NARCAN is an “immediacy issue.” NARCAN is administered to a person in the midst of a potentially lethal overdose.

“NARCAN is truly a miracle drug. To see a young man knocking on heaven’s door  and after NACAN, he’s awake and conversational,” said Boyle.

Marchione announced that she would be holding a NARCAN training session in the near future.

Ideas recognized at these community meetings are scheduled to be reported back to the state senate by June 1.

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