Advocates Point to Signs of Progress on Opioid Crisis But Warn Against Complacency

Apr 6, 2017

After more than 1,600 drug-overdose deaths over the last five years, Timothy Rourke, longtime advocate for expanded treatment and recovery services, says the state may be reaching a turning point.  Maybe.

“We did see last year a slowing of the rate of overdose deaths. We lost 478 people last year -- that’s 478 too many -- but the rate of increase from the year prior is the lowest it’s been since the beginning of the epidemic.  Additionally, we saw a decrease in emergency room visits tethered to opiate abuse disorders or overdose,” he said on The Exchange.  

Rourke chairs the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery and is Director of Substance Use Disorders Grantmaking for the NH Charitable Foundation.  

“These are early indicators. I think we really need to see over the next year if we continue the momentum of that leveling off and perhaps see a decline,” he said. “But I think that gives us some ability to be cautiously optimistic -- that the ways in which we have worked to reduce stigma, increase treatment and recovery access, is beginning to give hope and help to the people who really need it.”

During the New Hampshire primary, we were having this tremendous spike in deaths. Candidates like Christie, Clinton, Sanders, and Trump were doing town halls and rallies and probably wanted to talk about the economy, and people were raising their hands and saying, 'My son, my daughter overdosed and died. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to help people?' I think that allowed people to come out of the closet and start talking about it openly.  -- Jack Rodolico, NHPR Health and Science Reporter.  

Despite these signs of progress, Rourke warns that complacency would be a big mistake and points to other substance abuse problems, including an old scourge: alcohol, which accounts for one third of treatment admissions.

“We continue to see high rates of impact due to alcohol or other drugs as well.  Law enforcement is starting to see the emergence of methamphetamines. We had some overdoses related to a mix of fentanyl and cocaine, which is a relatively new phenomenon. “

Rourke said he and other advocates will urge state senators -- who now take over the budget process -- to increase funding for addiction services. Their prime target is the state’s alcohol fund, which takes a small portion of state liquor sale revenues and puts it toward substance abuse prevention and treatment. The fund has been fully funded only once since it was created in 2000.

“Last year we made $660 million on the sale of alcohol,” Rourke said. “Alcohol killed more people last year than opiates did in the United States. I think we have a moral obligation that if the state is going to continue to profit off the sale of alcohol, we should be taking a percentage of profits from that sale and dedicating it to mitigating the problems it causes.”

Cheryle Pacapelli, project director of Harbor Homes, which facilitates the opening of recovery centers in the state, says when she first came to the state from Connecticut two years ago, treatment and recovery services were in sorry shape.

“There was no peer-to-peer recovery support … Harbor Homes right now has nine recovery community centers throughout the state that we’re helping to fund and sustain. We have the 800 addiction help line; we have the regional access points.”

But both Pacapelli and Courtney Gray Tanner, executive director of the N.H. Providers Association, say there’s still plenty  of work to be done. And uncertainty about the future of Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act doesn't help: 

“We’re struggling to obtain licensed therapists, counselors, and clinicians," Gray Tanner said. "We’re unsure what health care changes are going to happen.  Medicaid expansion will sunset in 2020. So providers are concerned about growing their practices if they’re unsure about funding that may not be there in two years."

To read in-depth reporting on the opioid crisis and to contribute your own stories, see NHPR's Crossroad: the NH Opioid Reporting Project 

To hear the entire Exchange discussion on the opioid crisis at a crossroad, listen here.