By R.A. Schuetz
The two-year federal budget deal passed weeks ago included $6 billion for opioid addiction recovery and mental health, marking a vast increase over previous spending — the total federal funding prior had been $1 billion. The funds come on the heels of a year with the highest number of Connecticut opioid overdose deaths to date.
But while the money has been allocated, who will receive it has not. Over the upcoming year, members of Congress in the Senate and House will begin lobbying one another over how that sum will be divided between categories such as law enforcement, rehabilitation programs and the medical system.
Thursday in Norwalk, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and Rep. Jim Himes sat down in with municipal officials, police officers, health professionals, advocates and recovering addicts from around Fairfield County to hear their thoughts on how the money should be used before entering the fray.
“What we know is that, despite our best efforts, this epidemic is getting worse, not better,” said Murphy, who sits on the Appropriations Committee that allocates federal funds.
“I hope you will give us a bit of a sense today about what you see is working and what you see is not working when it comes to the way in which we spend dollars because you’re about to get the biggest appropriation of federal dollars for this epidemic since it began,” he said.
Out of the $6 billion, $60 million is likely to go to Connecticut based on previous allocations of opioid crisis funding, Murphy said.
Deaths from overdoses in Connecticut surpassed 1,000 people for the first time in 2017. Norwalk police Lt. James Walsh said that heroin mixed with fentanyl — a drug hundreds of times more potent than heroin — is still prevalent in the area, although overdose deaths from fentanyl had gone down. However, a new trend is that people have begun buying fentanyl from China on the dark web and mixing it with heroin locally.
The healthcare community’s suggestions for ways to fund the fight against opioid addiction were varied. Eileen Kardos, who works with population health at Norwalk Hospital, believed that more training for prescribers to be able to intervene in cases of substance abuse could help address the problem.
A model known as SBIRT (screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment) aims to put health care professionals more at ease referring patients to treatment.
“The SBIRT model has been very successful,” Kardos said. “And I think that prescribers and doctors and health care professionals really need to be comfortable having those conversations.”
On the treatment side, John D’Eramo, the president of MCCA, which provides substance abuse services in the greater Danbury area, outlined the impact recent budget cuts have had on the nonprofit. While cost of living has increased over the years, state budget cuts have forced the organization to make tough decisions. MCCA recently lost two of its 30-day rehab beds while trying to maximize the number of beds it uses for detox.
“And they’re both needed,” he said. “These are just the day-to-day challenges that a nonprofit faces in today’s situation with the state.”
Eric Collins, a psychologist at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, wasn’t sure that more beds were the answer.
“Addiction is always a chronic, typically, and remitting illness. We can give people residential treatment, but if we don’t give them something for the long-term — I would analogize it to someone with diabetes,” he said, where long-term management is needed.
He believed that medications such as methadone maintenance and buprenorphine maintenance were an important part of treating addiction.
Afterward, Michael Askew, a recovery community center manager at Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, voiced frustration that the funding for addiction recovery and mental health had been bundled. A recovering addict for nearly three decades himself, he believed that the bundling would end up greatly reducing how much of the $6 billion goes toward opioid addiction.
“More money is allocated to mental health than substance abuse,” he said simply.
His hope was that some of the funding would be used to replace other recent cuts to federal funds.
Murphy said his biggest takeaways from the conversation were that there were not enough beds or prevention services.
While he saw the $6 billion as a start, he didn’t think it was enough.
“The problem is that the federal funding is coming at the same time that state funding is declining,” he said. “One of my worries is that the federal funding will be used to plug the gap left by decreasing state funding.”