It was billed as an opportunity for members of the medical community to talk about what works and what doesn’t in the treatment of opioid addiction, but Thursday’s gathering of the Southampton Town Opioid Task Force at Southampton Hospital’s Parrish Memorial Hall was as much a call for a public mobilization against the growing public health crisis.
Dr. Shawn Cannon, a member of the task force’s treatment subcommittee, likened the opioid crisis to the AIDS crisis, and asked where was the public outrage. “There’s no march on Albany,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk about it.”
The time has come, he said, for the public to demand the government to intervene, whether by more strictly regulating the pharmaceutical industry to demanding that insurance companies cover more comprehensive treatment plans for addicts. “We have a Congress that is allowing our children to die,” he said, noting that every 25 minutes someone dies from an overdose in the United States.
Supervisor Jay Schneiderman created the opioid task force last fall in response to that crisis, which in 2017 claimed the lives of 19 town residents. The panel has been charged with proposing recommendations for combating the crisis on a local level.
On Thursday, Mr. Schneiderman said the goal was to prevent the next death, and said he wanted to do that by engaging a large cross-section of the community to combat opioid abuse. Besides forums like the one held Thursday, the town is planning to hold a candlelight vigil to remember the victims on May 12, the night before Mother’s Day, he said. “We are trying to make the circle as big as possible,” he said, adding he hoped the event would draw some people battling addiction so they know they are “part of something bigger than themselves.”
It was not long ago, Dr. Cannon said, that when people thought of heroin addiction, “we thought of the Lower East Side, we thought of the Bronx, we thought of Brooklyn.” Then the crisis hit home, and Suffolk County started to see more deaths by opioid overdose than the Bronx and Brooklyn combined, he said.
He laid the blame on a society that has come to rely on opioids and other drugs to try to eliminate the pain that should be a part of the normal healing process following injury or surgery. The United States, with 4.6 percent of the world’s population, consumes 84 percent of all opioids, he said, adding that questionnaires given to patients being discharged from American hospitals often focus exclusively on how well the hospital succeeded in relieving their pain.
Although the medical profession has curtailed the number of opioid prescriptions issued, he complained that most medical schools provide scant training in addiction treatment to the doctors they teach. While the medical profession has begun to explore alternatives to opioids, such as meditation and acupuncture for pain therapy, insurance companies rarely provide adequate coverage for such treatments, he said.
Dr. Cannon called for more treatment on demand and criticized insurance companies for failing to provide coverage for long-term, in-patient treatment. Only the best insurance companies provide coverage for 28 days of inpatient treatment, a length of time, he said, that was based on a 1958 study of alcoholism. As a result of the lack of coverage, addicts either turn up in the emergency room or in jail, he said.
“Nineteen-year-olds probably don’t belong in Riverhead jail,” he said. “We spend $800 a night in Riverhead jail. Why don’t we put them in a rehab center and spend $800 a night?”
Members of an audience of well over 100 people had plenty of suggestions. Anthony Rizzuto, the founder of Families in Support of Treatment, an advocacy group, who also works at Seafield, a treatment center in Westhampton Beach, agreed that getting insurers to cover more comprehensive inpatient treatment was imperative.
“The idea that somebody who is shooting 20 bags of heroin is going to go to rehab for five, 10, 20 days and that it’s going to be over is pathetic,” he said.
He called for more education and support of families facing the addiction struggle. “We’re preaching to the choir,” he said of those attending Thursday’s event. He said the town should create public service announcements to be aired on television to help people learn where they can go for help because many, he said, may be too embarrassed to seek help at a public forum.
Diane Newman of the Dunes, a treatment home in East Hampton, said one of its biggest problems facing treatment centers is NIMBYism. “The pushback that we get from the community is unbelievable,” she said, adding that the legal fees the center pays out could be used to help subsidize treatment for those who cannot afford it.
Dr. Daniel Vanarsdale, a member of the task force, suggested that the Stony Brook Southampton campus, which is largely vacant today could be used in part as a treatment center, for recovery housing or even as a sober campus for students who did not want to live in dorms where alcohol is consumed or drugs used.
Dr. Vanarsdale also spoke to the necessity of embracing all forms of treatment, from risk reduction to abstinence. “As a community we need to get over the judgement of what may be necessary and think outside the box,” he said. “That one crazy, stupid idea may be the one that saves someone’s life, so we should try them all.”
Dr. Mindy Prager, a Southampton psychiatrist, urged the task force to not overlook the underlying causes of drug abuse. “People are trying to treat their depression and anxiety,” she said. “They are both very treatable, but you need to know how to do it.”
Another audience member, Paulette Philippi, told the panel giving addicts sufficient inpatient care was vital. She said her son has succeeded in his long-term recovery in part because he was given 48 days of inpatient treatment. Her grandson, who was only given nine days, was not so lucky and later died from an overdose. She stressed that addiction is a family disease. “If the person in recovery comes back to the home and nothing has changed in that home, they don’t have much of a chance,” she said.
Kyle Camberdella, who said he has struggled with addiction, said the system, which allows doctors to prescribe suboxone to combat opioid addiction, was flawed because it simply allowed a legal drug to be substituted for an illegal one. And he argued that often drug dealers, who are trying to avoid a prison sentence, are given beds in treatment centers that he believed should go to those trying to kick their habits. Despite his many efforts to recover, he said “I’ve never gotten the full treatment ever.”