By Valerie Gordon
Local and state policy-makers, health professionals and others gathered at the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons last week for the East End’s first opioid forum, “Stories From Suffolk.”
The goal of the forum — a joint effort between Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office and the Albany-based Rockefeller Institute of Government—was to discuss the next steps in addressing the nationwide opioid epidemic on a local level.
The conference at the Shinnecock Hills church on Wednesday, February 6, was split into two panels focusing on prevention methods, and treatment and recovery options, and was intended to tease out “what works and what doesn’t,” according to the institutes’s president, Jim Malatras.
“There is no greater challenge than the opioid epidemic,” he said, referring to the forum as the “spaghetti method”: “We are throwing everything against the wall to see which strands of those spaghetti pieces are going to stick.”
The plan moving forward is to replicate what works throughout the state and get the number of opioid-related deaths down to zero, Mr. Bellone said.
But to do so requires efforts from every facet of the government, including law enforcement and the criminal justice system, education, as well as health services and treatment accessibility.
In 2017, Southampton Town Police reported that 19 individuals died from opioids; in 2018, that number dropped to six. “We are committed to getting that number down to zero,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said on Wednesday.
The first step to addressing the crisis is funding, according to Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. The co-chair of the New York State Heroin and Opioid Abuse Task Force announced on Wednesday that $7.5 million in state funding will be allocated toward doing just that. She added that $3.5 million is set aside for medication assistance, $1.75 million to help facilitate hospitals, and $1.8 million for education efforts.
“I’ve been to far too many funerals,” she added.
Robert Kent, chief counsel for the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, or OASAS, said the first step on his part, however, is to break down the barriers put in place by insurance companies. He explained that often, individuals in treatment are charged multiple co-pays per day, depending on what services are provided. Under a new plan, those co-payments would cost the same as a doctor’s office visit and will be limited to one charge per day, he said.
The problem remains, however, that medical providers authorized to provide Medical Assisted Treatment, or MAT, are limited by the federal government on how many patients they can treat per year, according to Steven Salvatore, founder of Farmingville-based Victory Recovery Partners. He said during an interview that within the first year, medical providers are only allowed to treat 30 patients. Those numbers increase to 100 in the second year, and top out at 275.
While that barrier remains, Mr. Kent said that OASAS is working with the New York State Education Department to address the challenges faced in education. He explained that the plan is to create a statewide comprehensive kindergarten-through-12th grade curriculum to teach students about the dangers of opioid and substance abuse.
Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini expanded upon that, outlining several educational programs of his own. Those include “The Ugly Truth,” a heroin and prescription drug awareness program led by the county’s police department, medical examiner’s office and Health Department, as well as “Choices and Consequences,” a presentation by the district attorney’s office Vehicular Crime Bureau on the dangers of driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“It’s never too early to start,” Mr. Sini said.
Panelist and Hampton Bays School Superintendent Lars Clemensen agreed: “Action is needed today. It’s needed yesterday.”
He added that teaching students to recognize warning signs will help to eliminate what he called the “bystander effect.” “Don’t assume someone else is going to carry the ball,” he said.
Mr. Clemensen’s counterpart in Remsenburg-Speonk, Ronald Masera, said that building relationships between students and law enforcement is crucial to addressing the opioid problem in school-age children.
However, according to Anthony Ferrandino, chairman of the Northport-East Northport Drug and Alcohol Task Force, more action is needed. He explained that school administrators and teachers are often contending with state instructional requirements, such as mathematics and science, to truly dedicate enough time to social emotional learning. “It often gets missed,” he said.
Krystle Stoddard, a New York State Recovery Peer Advocate at THRIVE Recovery Center in Hauppauge, added that budgetary restrictions often prevent school administrators from hiring a dedicated instructor to teach such courses. Instead, those responsibilities fall on the districts’ health teachers and guidance counselors, she said.
On top of addressing the educational aspect, Mr. Sini also explained that the district attorney’s office has implemented several programs within the criminal justice system to benefit those suffering from addiction.
In 2017, the Suffolk County Police Department launched the Preventing Incarceration Via Opportunities for Treatment, or PIVOT, program, an initiative in partnership with the Long Island Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, or LICADD. Under which, the police department will refer appropriate candidates to LICADD, which will in turn place those individuals in OASAS-certified rehabilitation facilities.
Under a similar program, which Mr. Sini said is coming soon, non-violent offenders within the court system who accept treatment prior to their arraignment can have their case dismissed. “You are never entered into the criminal justice system,” he said.
Drug dealers pose a separate problem, however, he said. In recent years, the state’s manslaughter statute was amended to include charging those responsible for a fatal overdoses to address those challenges.
The Southampton Town Police Department also debuted a public service announcement at the forum that, together with East End police chiefs and students from Westhampton Beach High School and Tuckahoe School, helps raise awareness of the dangers of opioids.
Kristie Golden, associate director of operations at Stony Brook University Hospital, added that the County Police department is currently training a crisis intervention team to respond appropriately to sensitive overdose situations. She advised that a similar team should be trained to respond to situations in Suffolk County jails.
“Our law enforcement professionals deal with difficulty situations everyday—it’s very easy to become hardened,” she said.
During the panel on treatment and recovery strategies, Ms. Golden added, however, that accessibility to treatment may be the biggest challenge yet in addressing the opioid epidemic.
Methadone, one approach to MAT, requires daily doses to be effective. But treatment must be supervised, and there are only four sites throughout Suffolk County that offer such services, she said.
Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of Family and Children’s Association in Mineola, added to that sentiment. “Asking someone to drive from Hauppauge to Riverhead every day is crazy,” he said. “There ought to be a dozen facilities.”
In addition, he noted that the services offered by those facilities are also often limited by the various sites’ hours of operation. “Substance abuse is 24/7. It’s not 9-to-5,” he said.
But, he said the problem goes deeper than that. He explained that the gateway to opioid abuse is often seen as marijuana, but, he said, it starts with mental health instead.
“Mental health is on the forefront,” added Tomrul Tuzel, medical director at Behavioral Enhancement and Substance Abuse Medicine Treatment in Deer Park. “Having access to mental health professionals is critical.”
However, he explained that by the time an individual gets an appointment to see a psychologist, it’s often too late. “When people are in pain or suffering, they’re going to go for the quickest fix,” he said.
Dr. Golden agreed: “If we’re going to get down to zero, we need to say, ‘Let’s get you in today.’”
Southampton Town officials plan to hold the East End’s second candlelight vigil on May 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays to honor those who lost their lives to opioid addiction.