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Editorial: Invest in an end to opioid crisis


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

If the Pembroke family’s story, as told by reporter Katharine Seelye in Sunday’s New York Times, was a movie, it would be too painful to watch. Seelye spent a year chronicling the efforts of four members of the Griffin family – mother Sandy, father Dennis, and sisters Betsy and Jane – to save the fifth member, son Patrick, from himself. Patrick is a heroin addict who, as the Times headline proclaimed, overdosed four times within six hours. Each time, emergency personnel revived him with Narcan, a drug that counteracts opioids.

It is a story that every politician who has pledged to fight the war on drugs, including Gov. Chris Sununu and President Donald Trump, should read, because they are not getting the job done. Words and promises don’t pay the salaries of drug treatment personnel, make mortgage payments on sober houses or cover the cost of substance abuse prevention. That takes money, and neither the president nor New Hampshire’s governor and Legislature have been willing to spend anything like what a serious effort to eradicate the scourge would cost.

When Patrick is sober, the fear that he will relapse, as he has over and over again, is constant. When he’s using, the fear of death is ever present. Addiction affects everyone in an addict’s life.

In the article and a companion piece, the Times tries to explain why New Hampshire residents are dropping like flies, felled by overdoses of heroin or, more often, fentanyl, a powerful drug people with no chemistry training can make at home.

“A bag of fentanyl-laced heroin sells for less than a six-pack of beer,” according to researchers at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

Low prices and New Hampshire’s proximity to Lawrence and Lowell, Mass., major centers of the illicit drug trade, helped New Hampshire earn national notice of the kind no state wants. The Granite State ranks second behind West Virginia in opioid deaths – nearly 500 people died from overdoses in 2015 and 2016 – and first in the nation in deaths due to fentanyl.

Although late to the effort, New Hampshire has made attempts to combat substance abuse and save addicts’ lives. The state’s doctors, for reasons that have yet to be explained, long prescribed opioid pain relievers at nearly twice the national average. That led to inadvertent addictions. Rules were tightened and the state created a prescription registry that can be used to identify physicians whose opioid prescription practices are out of the ordinary.

The opposite problem also exists. New Hampshire has too few doctors trained in and willing to prescribe Suboxone, a drug used to treat addiction. The Northeast, as a region, averages 15.5 doctors per 100,000 residents who administer the drug; New Hampshire has seven.

Manchester’s Fire Department won national acclaim for launching Safe Station, a program that allows addicts to go to fire stations to receive help and referral to treatment without fear of arrest. In just one year Manchester’s stations referred more than 1,500 people to Serenity Place, a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility. Last month, the deluge of patients and, if the governor is correct, administrative mismanagement, led to the facility’s financial collapse. Services are being maintained temporarily by another nonprofit.

The opioid epidemic is far worse than it should be given the state’s demographics. New Hampshire is being poisoned by its famous frugality. Only Texas spends less on drug treatment. New Hampshire has the lowest poverty rate in the nation and the highest median household income. It has the ability to provide substance abuse treatment for all who need it. What it doesn’t yet have is the will to do so.