Targeting a heroin epidemic, a high-powered group assembled in New Haven sent a message to doctors: Stop helping patients get hooked on prescription drugs.
U.S. Sens. Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy convened the group Thursday morning at the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center on Columbus Avenue to discuss a troubling rise in heroin addiction and deaths in Connecticut and beyond. The event brought together people recovering from addition, law enforcement officers, health care professionals, and Obama’s point-person on federal drug control policy.
Blumenthal opened the forum by outlining the scope of what he termed an “exploding epidemic” heroin problem in Connecticut: Heroin-related deaths have shot up from 174 in 2012 to 257 in 2013. Meanwhile, the use of heroin doubled nationally from 2007 to 2012. On average, heroin is killing one person per day in Connecticut, according to the senators.
Senator Murphy said in the vast majority of deaths by heroin overdose, the trouble began with the abuse of prescription drugs.
Office of National Drug Control Policy Acting Director Michael Botticelli (pictured) identified a top priority in fighting this epidemic: Educating doctors. Doctors are giving away opioid drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet too freely, Botticelli said.
Botticelli cited a personal example: He used to be addicted to drugs. He’s in long-term recovery, celebrating 24 years of sobriety. Botticelli said when he got dental surgery, he notified his dentist that he was in recovery. His dentist nonetheless offered him Percocet—a dangerous drug for someone recovering from addiction. Botticelli said the incident highlighted the need to better train health care professionals in how to treat patients who are addicted to, or recovering from addiction to, prescription drugs.
Patients are known to go “doctor shopping” for Percocet and Oxycontin, Botticelli noted. It’s too easy to fake symptoms and get a prescription you don’t need. That’s feeding the addiction problem, he said: 70 percent of prescription drug addicts get their drugs for free from family and friends.
Eric Burdett (pictured at the top of this story) testified to that statement. He said he started taking prescription drugs because a friend gave him a pill when he had a headache. That was the first step to years of prescription drug abuse.
“I knew for four to five years before I came clean that I needed help,” Burdett said. “I was just too ashamed to admit it. It had completely taken over my life and controlled me.” Burdett recounted going to desperate measures to find the drugs, including stealing his mother’s Vicodin tablets, then replacing them with aspirin that he had ground down and re-packaged.
He ended up going through inpatient detox at the South Central Rehabilitation Center on Cedar Street, which is run by Hill Health. He announced he has now been in recovery for 20 months.
For a new nurse practitioner or doctor, it can be hard to determine whether a patient really needs pain meds or is faking symptoms in order to feed an addiction, said Michael Taylor (pictured), CEO of Hill Health.
“New practitioners don’t always realize when they are enabling drug-seekers,” Taylor said.
Addiction drives people to deceit, acknowledged April Willis, who is also in recovery.
“We’re very sneaky. We’re very conniving. We’re very manipulative,” she said of people suffering from drug addiction.
“That’s like politicians,” quipped Blumenthal.
Doctors don’t get enough training to face the flood of requests from prescription drug-seekers, said William Sledge, medical director of the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital.
“In general, physicians haven’t been trained to say no,” he said.
Physicians’ behavior is a “major problem” contributing to prescription drug addiction, he said. Knowing how to tell when someone is addicted to prescription drugs—and how to help them—is difficult, Sledge said. In addition to well-meaning doctors getting taken advantage of, there a number of “bad actors” who knowingly overprescribe pain meds, he said.
“We need clear prosecutorial guidelines for inappropriate prescription of medication,” he said.
After people get hooked on prescription drugs, they often switch to heroin because it’s cheaper. Heroin is particularly cheap in New Haven and in Connecticut, Murphy said, because of the drug trafficking paths. Heroin often enters the country in New York from Colombia or Mexico and moves up the coast by way of Connecticut, he said. It starts in Stamford, New Haven and Bridgeport, “then moves up from there.”
For that reason, “the prices are cheapest in Connecticut,” Murphy said.
That drug-trafficking path also means that the drug is “in its purest form” in Connecticut, added Lt. Anthony Campbell (pictured), who just got promoted to the police chief’s chief of staff.
Because the heroin is so pure, it is “extremely dangerous” for New Haveners, Campbell said. The heroin epidemic is becoming “extremely frustrating” for New Haven police, he said. “More and more resources are going towards overdoses,” he said. When someone overdoses, the fire department takes care of their medical needs, and police also respond because there may be people with guns in the area, he said.
Campbell said police see that heroin addiction feeds many small-time crimes. He said New Haven police have been educating officers to try to steer addicts to treatment instead of arresting them.
“We know we cannot arrest our way out of it,” he said.
Botticelli offered one way to keep people from dying from heroin: A drug called naloxone. The drug is a powerful antidote to opioid overdose. If a person is overdosing on heroin, an injection of naloxone can save that person’s life.
Botticelli described a pilot program in which police in Massachusetts were equipped with naloxone so they can treat people on the spot. The program has averted over 100 overdoses, and has changed the relationships between citizens in police, he said: Often, police flash their lights and people don’t want them around. Now, he said, citizens are flashing their lights for police to come help them because they know the cops have naloxone.
Pat Rehmer, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said Connecticut has been enduring the heroin epidemic that has swept through Vermont and New Hampshire. The most troubling trend, she said, is that heroin users are getting “much, much younger.” People as young as middle school are using heroin, often in suburban towns, she said.
Rehmer last year pushed for a law that enables friends and family of opioid addicts to get a prescription for naloxone so they can save the addict’s life. Not many people are taking advantage of that law, she said. This legislative session, she is pushing for a law that would allow first responders—including cops, firefighters and EMTs—to carry naloxone on the job. She said given the recent heroin deaths and the scope of the epidemic, she expects the bill to pass without a problem.
Blumenthal and Murphy have also released a five-point plan to combat the state’s heroin problem: Click here to read it.