2016 drug deaths in N.H. set to surpass last year’s record

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    A kit with naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is displayed at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City, N.J. on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. An overdose of opiates essentially makes the body forget to breathe. Naloxone works by blocking the brain receptors that opiates latch onto and helping the body "remember" to take in air. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Monitor staff
Published: 7/11/2016 6:32:19 PM

The number of drug deaths in New Hampshire this year is set to surpass last year’s record of 439, according to analysis from the state medical examiner’s office.

With the year a little more than half over, officials have already confirmed 161 deaths. Add that number to hundreds more cases that are pending, and you get a total projected number of 494 deaths in 2016, according to Chief Forensic Investigator Kim Fallon.

The main killer remains fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that can be 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.

Of the total confirmed deaths in 2016, fentanyl was involved in 108. Taken by itself, the drug killed 62 people this year.

It’s a steep toll for a drug that’s only been in New Hampshire for the past few years.

In 2013, just 17 deaths could be attributed to fentanyl. One year later, that number had ballooned to 146.

Fentanyl was also involved in 283 deaths in 2015.

Fallon and her colleagues at the medical examiner’s office first noticed the effect heroin was having in the state in 2013. That year, heroin had claimed about 68 lives but still didn’t account for as many as other opioids, including prescription narcotics.

“We thought, ‘Oh my God, it skyrocketed,’ ” Fallon said. “Now it looks like nothing compared to the fentanyl.”

The opioids largely come from suppliers in Northern Massachusetts cities such as Haverhill and Lawrence, officials said.

While some drug users seek out fentanyl for its potency, many mistake it for heroin and don’t know what kind of drug they are taking.

There is little precision to how the drugs are cut and packaged, police said, and much of what makes its way into New Hampshire is a haphazard blend of heroin, fentanyl and cutting agents that have been mixed in blenders.

Because of the crude mixing, portions of what drug users buy on the street can be pure fentanyl.

“There’s no coming back from that, no opiate antagonist like Narcan is bringing you back from that,” Manchester police Lt. Brian O’Keefe said in an interview earlier this year.

Even with the grim news, there is progress being made on the state’s treatment capacity.

A new order from the United States Department of Health and Human Services expanded the number of patients a single buprenorphine provider can treat from 100 to 275.

Buprenorphine is a maintenance drug that weans drug addicts off harder drugs like heroin and fentanyl while staving off withdrawal symptoms. The new order will take effect early next month.

In addition, New Hampshire recently announced that 140,000 Medicaid participants in the state will be eligible for substance use disorder benefits, up from the 49,000 people who accessed them previously.

Medicaid recipients either in the state’s fee-for-service plan, New Hampshire Healthy Families or the Well Sense Health Plan will be eligible. The benefit will cover outpatient services, residential treatment, opioid treatment programs such as methadone and Suboxone, recovery support services and recovery monitoring.

New Hampshire health officials have been working to expand the state’s treatment capacity, which is one of the lowest in the nation.

Michael Rogers, assistant administrator for the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services at HHS, recently said the department has been getting a lot of attention from providers looking to bring more drug and alcohol treatment programs to the state.

“We’re looking at the broad spectrum . . . and trying to build the infrastructure to handle whatever needs are there,” Rogers said in an interview earlier this month.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ella_nilsen.)

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