Series: New Hampshire's Opioid Crisis

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

Once considered a problem confined to large urban areas, the abuse of heroin and other opioids like prescription painkillers has become the number one public-health issue across New Hampshire. Three hundred twenty five people died of drug overdoses in the state last year, a 40 percent increase over 2013. State officials fear 2015 could be worse.

Meanwhile, the state’s underfunded network of treatment facilities can’t handle the number of people seeking help to overcome addiction.

Over the next year, NHPR will explore New Hampshire’s opioid crisis from several angles. A team of reporters will explain how people become addicted,  how prescription drugs like Vicodin and Oxycodone contribute to the rise in heroin use, and how state officials, from the governor to local police, are struggling with an epidemic that now kills more Granite Staters each year than traffic accidents.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

For the past year, state and county prosecutors in New Hampshire have started enforcing a decades-old law that allows them to seek tougher penalties for drug dealers who sell lethal doses.

So far, the policy has led to a handful of convictions, with sentences ranging from a few years to 20 years in prison.

But critics warn this strategy will have little effect on the state’s epidemic of drug abuse.

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Governor Chris Sununu has created a new position in his office to help shape drug prevention, treatment and recovery policy.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Manchester’s public health director says based on last year’s numbers, the city’s drug problem is still serious but efforts to address it are working.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

New Hampshire’s alcohol fund, which takes a small portion of state liquor sale revenues and puts it towards substance abuse prevention and treatment, has only been fully funded once since it was created in 2000. 

But one Keene lawmaker wants to change that.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Since last May, the Manchester Fire Department's Safe Station program has helped more than 1,000 people take the first step toward recovery from drug and alcohol abuse.

But while the first-of-its-kind program is being hailed as a lifesaver in the state's largest city, bringing Safe Station to other parts of the state may prove difficult: it requires treatment centers and other resources that most New Hampshire communities simply don’t have.    

Todd Bookman/NHPR

Following promises made during the campaign, Republicans are taking steps to repeal the Affordable Care Act. What will replace the health care law, and which provisions will be spared, is still very much a question in Washington. In New Hampshire, that’s causing unease for many in the substance abuse treatment community.

Jack Rodolico

Catholic Medical Center in Manchester is your typical general hospital: they deliver babies, set broken bones, perform heart surgery. And it might be as good a place as any to witness how the opioid epidemic is transforming healthcare in New Hampshire.

For over a year, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office has been trying to determine whether drug makers break the law in how they marketed opioid painkillers in the state. It’s a slow legal battle that could determine that pharmaceutical companies knew they were putting people at risk by overselling highly addictive painkillers. Many of those painkillers were abused – leading to an addiction and overdose epidemic.

There’s been a new development in that story, and NHPR’s Jack Rodolico sat down with Morning Edition to talk about it.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

New Hampshire lawmakers are close to approving a federal grant to help the state Medical Examiners Office deal with a backlog of autopsies, mostly due to drug overdose deaths. 

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

One New Hampshire lawmaker wants to add a new charge to the state’s criminal code: Under his proposal, someone who provides another person with a lethal dose of heroin or fentanyl would be charged with manslaughter

Casey McDermott, NHPR

New Hampshire Public Radio has spent two years exploring the opioid crisis, examining everything from how it began to how state officials and the treatment community have responded. In that time, nearly 1,000 Granite Staters have died from drug overdoses — and many, many more have struggled with addiction.

We want to continue our reporting on this important issue in the year ahead, and we need your help. We want to hear how heroin and opioid use has affected your life, whether you've personally experienced addiction or whether you've dealt with the issue secondhand — as a friend, family member, treatment provider or otherwise.

Our hope is that by listening to people who've been touched by the epidemic, we'll better understand the disease of addiction and its impact on our community. 

A bill in the New Hampshire legislature could make it legal to hospitalize someone against their will because of a drug addiction. The bill would amend the state law that allows authorities to involuntarily commit people suffering from a serious mental illness who pose a threat to themselves.

Republic Senator Jeb Bradley says he proposed the bill after he spoke with the family of someone who died of an overdose.

Brian Wallstin/NHPR

A physician assistant sanctioned a year ago for improperly prescribing narcotic painkillers has been ordered to surrender his license permanently. 

Chris Clough, a long-time employee of the state's largest chain of pain clinics, failed to abide by restrictions placed on his license two years ago, according to the New Hampshire Board of Medicine.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

A new peer recovery center for addiction has opened its doors in Manchester. In the past week, the nonprofit Hope for New Hampshire Recovery has seen roughly 230 people a day. 

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Federal legislation aimed at helping states struggling with the opioid epidemic is headed to President Obama’s desk. That’s after the U.S. Senate Wednesday passed the proposal 94 to 5.

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The Senate is scheduled to take up a bill next week that would send $1 billion to states battling the opioid addiction crisis.

The federal dollars would be divvied up among states based on per-capita drug overdoses. By that measure, New Hampshire ranks third nationally.

The funding would help strengthen the state's growing but still inadequate network of services, including prevention, early detox, long-term housing and mental health treatment, says Tym Rourke, Chair of the Governor's Commission on Substance Abuse.

  In the past year, the number of narcotic painkillers prescribed in New Hampshire decreased by more than 13 percent, while cases of suspected “doctor shopping” by patients dropped by nearly two-thirds.

The new data, presented to Gov. Maggie Hassan and legislative leaders earlier this month, suggest that two years after it was launched, the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is working as designed.

New Hampshire is joining 40 other states in a lawsuit against the maker of Suboxone, a drug widely promoted to help opioid addicts.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

The opioid crisis was a big issue in New Hampshire in 2016 – both on the campaign trail and in the State House. Nearly 433 people died of a drug overdose last year; this year, that number is expected to surpass 500. But what will the shift in political control both nationally and at the state level mean for policy approaches to tackling this issue?

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Governor Maggie Hassan signed an executive order Wednesday calling for the creation of the state’s first ever committee designed to analyze drug overdose deaths. 

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Three months ago, the Legislature signed off on a bill to expand an anti-drug law enforcement program known as Granite Hammer.

On Wednesday, state officials announced plans to distribute more than a million dollars in grant money to municipalities across New Hampshire. 

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

The effort to end the state’s opioid crisis involves many players: lawmakers, treatment and recovery providers, police and a often overlooked piece…the state’s crime lab.

With drug overdose deaths  rising, the state’s crime lab analysts have their hands full.

Roughly 3,500 drug cases wait to be analyzed at the State Police Crime lab in Concord. Some date as far back as last year.

New Hampshire is one of nearly a dozen states getting a one million dollar federal grant to expand access to medication-assisted treatment for drug addiction.

 New Hampshire currently has the fewest number of physicians in New England who are certified to prescribe Suboxone, a drug used to reduce opioid cravings and ease withdrawals.

Sara Plourde for NHPR

More than 400 people died last year from drug overdoses in New Hampshire and that number is expected to surpass 500 this year.  But as our numbers increase, in many parts of Europe drug overdose deaths are declining.

During a three week fellowship in Germany earlier this summer, NHPR reporter Paige Sutherland decided to dig into Germany’s drug policies—to see what’s different, what’s worked and what New Hampshire might learn as it continues to tackle an opioid crisis.

In a series called “Through the Looking Glass,” every morning this week you’ll hear stories about Germany’s policies, from rooms where addicts can legally use to needle machines in prisons.   

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Advocates, first responders, and local and federal lawmakers say the state has made great strides in combating an opioid crisis, but much more still needs to be done.  At two press conferences in Concord Tuesday, the focus was on efforts at the state and federal levels both past and future.

Jack Rodolico

It’s no secret drugs like OxyContin and hydromorphone are highly addictive.

The real question is this: do drug companies downplay how addictive they are while marketing the medicine to doctors?

New Hampshire’s Attorney General Joe Foster suspects false marketing of legal pills has led to abuse of illicit drugs like heroin. That’s why he subpoenaed the nation’s largest manufacturers of prescription painkillers.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

A substance abuse treatment facility in Franklin, Farnum North, has added 42 more inpatient beds. And with help from donations, the center can now start treating patients who lack insurance. 

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New Hampshire’s medical marijuana program finally got off the ground in April, with the opening of the state’s first cannabis treatment center. Three of the four state-licensed dispensaries are now operating, and more than 1,100 people with serious illnesses are approved to use the drug.

But many, if not most, of the New Hampshire residents who could potentially benefit from medical marijuana won’t be able to legally obtain it.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Gov. Maggie Hassan has signed into law a bill to put state dollars into new and existing drug court programs across New Hampshire.

But for the past four years, Belknap County has been running its own drug court program without any financial help from the county, state or federal government.

They call it recovery court and it’s under the direction of a judge who has placed compassion at the heart of the program.

Paige Sutherland/NHPR

Most communities across New Hampshire have been touched by the opioid crisis that’s taken the lives of more than 400 Granite Staters last year, a majority from heroin and fentanyl.

But one place in the Lakes Region stands out not for its significantly high overdose numbers but rather how its community is responding.

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