The Hippo


Jun 2, 2020








Demonstrators on the Statehouse lawn. Photo by Ryan Lessard.

Can the state stave off the addiction epidemic?

By Ryan Lessard

As the House prepared to vote on its version of the state budget on April 1, the number 300 was on the minds of a small army of demonstrators who descended upon the Statehouse. That’s about the number of people who died of drug-related overdose in the state in 2014, a new record and an increase of more than 60 percent from 2013. According to Kim Fallon, the chief forensic investigator for the state’s medical examiner’s office, the number is up to 311, and it could still go up as they await more test results.

Meanwhile, the DEA announced last month the rise in the number of fentanyl-related overdoses are happening at “an alarming rate” nationwide. Seizures by law enforcement of illegal drugs containing fentanyl more than tripled between 2013 and 2014, according to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System.
Costs of treatment and prevention
The demonstrators came to the Statehouse because they feared lawmakers wouldn’t increase funding for services that would help treat and prevent addiction.
Gov. Maggie Hassan had proposed increasing funding to the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery by $2 million in fiscal year 2016 and by $4 million in fiscal year 2017. But the House budget included no such increase. Instead, the House voted to level fund the commission by $1.7 million each year.
Tym Rourke, the chair of the commission, said that money could mean the difference between life and death for many residents.
“As we’ve seen this heroin epidemic rise, our biggest concern is with these cuts that the legislature has proposed. It will effectively eliminate the state’s ability to stave off this epidemic, which killed 300 people last year, who, had they been able to access treatment services, might still be alive today,” Rourke said.
The House also voted to end expanded Medicaid. Researchers at New Futures, the drug treatment advocacy group that organized the rally, estimated that 5,000 newly enrolled people (about 14 percent of the people enrolled) would use a substance use disorder benefit through the program. The House also voted to drop another $3.3 million the governor proposed be used to expand that benefit to traditional Medicaid enrollees.
“We are at a tipping point where finally the state [has a chance] to treat this as the preventable and treatable disease that it is,” Rourke said.
But head House budget writer Rep. Neal Kurk of Weare said that overlooks the $23 million more that’s going into mental health programs.
“There are many positive things in the budget, and I’m always a bit peeved when people only look at the negatives,” Kurk said.
As for the commission funding, Kurk said it would have been a bad investment.
“The governor chose to put a priority on something that, based on testimony before the finance committee, could not be demonstrated to result in any of the savings that were claimed,” Kurk said.
The state Senate will start to draft its version of the budget now. That chamber already voted to delay a decision on expanded Medicaid for another year.
More than numbers
The plan on April 1, according to New Futures spokesperson Joe Gallagher, was to rally up to 300 people and stage a “die-in,” where demonstrators laid on the ground below the Statehouse steps as if dead from an overdose. Organizers even brought pens made to look like syringes to be used as props.
The headcount ended up being closer to 500. Many of them were family members of overdose victims, like Veretta St. James. Her daughter Erin Elizabeth died from an overdose in March 2012.
“I think it’s important that people understand that these are our loved ones. They’re our nieces and our nephews and our children. That the disease has a very negative stigma that’s associated with it, and it’s very easy to look the other way because we’re uncomfortable,” St. James said.
Also present for the demonstration was Doug Griffin. He held a large print of his daughter Courtney, who died of a fentanyl overdose last September.
“The medical examiner told me it was 80 times the strength that she would have been expecting,” Griffin said.
They tried to get her treatment through their Anthem health insurance plan.
“[Anthem] actually told us it was not a matter of life and death. That was two weeks before she died,” Griffin said.
The only way they could get her help was by taking her off their insurance and kicking her out of the house. Griffin said once she was homeless, she was admitted into a treatment program in Massachusetts, but she died the day before treatment was supposed to start.
Part of the issue for New Hampshire is that it has so little infrastructure for treatment and virtually no infrastructure for recovery, or for maintaining sobriety after treatment. And the best treatment available is too expensive for most addicts to afford to pay out-of-pocket, according to New Futures Executive Director Linda Paquette.
“We’re 49th in the country in terms of someone in need of treatment being able to access it,” Paquette said. “This is not a partisan issue.”
She said the number 300 could have been worse when you consider the anti-overdose drug Narcan was administered by first responders in the state 3,275 times last year.
Numbers can be helpful. But Sandy Mulcahy, whose son Tommy died last December when he transitioned from prescription opiates to heroin, wants to put a face to the numbers.
“When we see the statistics. … I’m like ‘That’s my son,’” Mulcahy said. “He’s more than a number.” 
As seen in the April 9, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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