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300 bodies on the State House lawn to be a ‘wake-up’ call to N.H. lawmakers

Last modified: 3/31/2015 3:08:31 PM
When Amber Blevens came out of jail for the fifth and final time, a window opened.

It was fleeting, but it was a real opportunity for her to give up heroin and regain control of her life. Most, if not all addicts have a window like this, said Blevens’s stepmother, Kriss Blevens.

To overcome addiction is impossible without an overlapping moment when the addict is ready to change his or her life and support services are ready to help, the elder Blevens said.

“If our health care system is set up to be ready when the addict is ready, the magic of recovery can happen,” she said. “If the funding and the bed is not there . . . there is no opportunity. It will progress until death.”

At 8:30 tomorrow morning, 300 people will lie as if dead on the State House lawn to say that New Hampshire isn’t ready to help its citizens who suffer from substance-abuse disorders. They represent the more than 300 people who died last year in the state as a result of a drug overdose.

At 22 years old, Amber “Red” Blevens was one of the 300 lost.

Ahead of a review of the state’s budget, the bodies will serve as a reminder and hopefully a prompt to restore substance abuse-related services cut by the House Finance Committee from the governor’s proposed budget, said Joe Gallagher, communications director for New Futures, the group organizing the event.

In January 2014, Amber told Kriss Blevens through a glass partition in jail that when she was released a few days later, she was ready for help. She wanted to check in to long-term rehab, get clean and pursue her goal of becoming an EMT.

Kriss Blevens put Amber on the waiting list for Farnum Center in Manchester, hoping that a bed would soon open up so Amber could receive long-term treatment there. When Kriss returned to the jail two more times in the following week to visit Amber, she had to relay the fact that no beds were open.

“Her desperation became more and more,” Kriss said.

Amber came out of jail, went into a one-week detox in Portsmouth instead and came home to live with her family, still with no bed available for her at the 30-day program in Manchester.

Three days later, she left a note on her bed and left her family’s home for good in the middle of the night.

“I can’t take it. I’ve got to go back to my people,” she wrote. “We knew at that point in time it was the drug calling her back because the addiction was so strong in her,” Blevens said.

A week detox isn’t long enough to retrain a person to cope with normal life, Blevens said. For an addict, she said, getting high and doing anything to get there becomes normal – and anything else feels uncomfortable.

“The addiction is the demon,” she said. “It’s the addiction in the person that calls them back to the drug because that’s where they feel normal.”

To condemn a drug addict as a criminal and a menace to society is myopic, she said.

“I’m not saying that’s not true, but those are all symptoms of the disease. That wouldn’t be their choice to act that way. The disease becomes too vicious – that person will go to any length to get that drug,” she said.

For Amber, the window was three days long and it closed when she ducked out in the middle of the night – still, no bed available. She saw her family again one more time about a month later when she came by for Easter, high, then was found dead from a heroin overdose in an alley behind the North End Superette in Manchester three days later on April 23.

Blevens is speaking out now, a few weeks ahead of the one-year anniversary of her stepdaughter’s death, in hopes it will persuade the state to put aside more money to help people with substance-abuse problems.

Gallagher said Gov. Maggie Hassan recommended increasing the allocation to the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery by $2 million in the next fiscal year and $4 million the year after that – but the House committee decided to keep it level funded.

The committee also eliminated the state’s version of Medicaid expansion, called the N.H. Health Protection Program, through which about 14 percent of beneficiaries would access substance-use disorder benefits, Gallagher said. Hassan also included $3.3 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget to provide substance-use disorder benefits to the standard Medicaid population, which the committee eliminated, Gallagher said.

Blevens said she hopes the demonstration tomorrow opens legislators’ eyes.

“I just want to see the House wake up to say, ‘Yes, this is a problem,’ and to see it for what it really is,” she said. “If they can see it for what it really is, I don’t think we’ll have any problem getting the help we need.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)


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