In Concord, Rep. Kuster discusses opioid crisis with advocates, stakeholders

  • ABOVE: U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, seated next to Riverbend Community Health Center CEO Peter Evers, met with New Hampshire advocates to discuss the opioid epidemic during a roundtable in Concord on Tuesday. BELOW: Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau talks about drug courts and the stigma surrounding drug abuse. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

  • Riverbend Community Health Center CEO Peter Evers listens to U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster during a roundtable discussion about the opioid epidemic in Concord on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Despite efforts to combat the heroin crisis in the state, members of law enforcement and recovery advocates say a stigma surrounding drug addiction is still dissuading some from supporting government funding of prevention and recovery programs.

“One of the most challenging aspects for us in the criminal justice system is to get the message out to the public that this is not a moral failing,” Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau said at a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster on Tuesday. “These people are in the criminal justice system because they have committed a crime, and 90 percent of them are because they are trying to support a habit and an addiction”

New Futures, a New Hampshire nonprofit advocating for policy to combat drug and alcohol abuse, rolled out a five-point agenda Tuesday morning focused on substance misuse. The organization’s plan calls on lawmakers to restore the state’s alcohol fund, permanently reauthorize Medicaid expansion, invest in evidence-informed prevention programs, improve behavioral workforce development and cut down barriers to insurance coverage for drug users trying to access recovery programs.

Shortly after a press conference earlier Tuesday morning, New Futures Executive Director Linda Saunders Paquette joined the roundtable with Kuster.

“We’ve had years of policy neglect on this issue and we are going to need years of policy support and implementation to finally get over this horrible crisis we’re in,” Paquette said.

Kuster outlined some of the efforts under way in Congress, especially the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, or CARA. The bill, passed in July, authorized $103 million for grant programs across the country to address heroin and opioid addiction. Kuster said about $5 million of that is earmarked for New Hampshire.

“When you divide it across the country, it is certainly not enough,” Kuster said. “What we are looking to do is increase the access to funding, and we’ll be looking to add at least $600 million – I’m hoping it’s more than that – so that New Hampshire gets more.”

Organizations will begin applying for grants through CARA in the fall. Kuster expects the money to become available “within the next six to eight months.”

The state medical examiner’s officer reported earlier this month that 196 people have died of drug overdose in New Hampshire this year. Officials predict that number will climb beyond 480 by year’s end, an increase from the record of 439 overdose deaths last year.

The opioid crisis became a national discussion leading up to New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary election when candidates were frequently asked how they would address the issue. Polls continue to show drug abuse as a top concern among New Hampshire residents.

“This is a terrible statement having lived her my entire life, but my two sons, 28 and 25, are living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and they feel safer to me than if they were here in New Hampshire,” Kuster said. “There is something wrong with that picture.”

After the meeting, the congresswoman was asked to clarify that comment.

“I’m just saying as a parent I would be very concerned about taking opiate medication not knowing if your child is one that is somebody that’s going to have a propensity for addiction,” Kuster said.

In June, Kuster introduced a bill that would label medication containing opioids to warn consumers of the drug’s addictive nature. Called “Carl’s Law,” the bill was drafted for Carl Messinger of Holderness who was prescribed a medication containing opioids while in recovery. He later relapsed and died of an overdose.

“For some people, this medicine can be very, very addicting,” Kuster said. “And we don’t have good research and good understanding of the science of the brain to know who can take the medicine and be fine . . . and who takes the medicine and just can’t live without it.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3309, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)