My Turn: A pivotal moment in opioid crisis

By JEFFREY A. MEYERS, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services

Published Concord Monitor 5/04/2016

The scope of the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire is unprecedented.

Opioid overdose deaths have increased from 40 in the early 1990s to 433 in 2015. The opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone, or Narcan, was administered 897 times in 2012 and 2,724 times in 2015. Heroin- and fentanyl-related emergency department visits have increased by 400 percent since 2012. It can take only one injection of heroin or one dose of a prescription opioid to create the next victim, with a generation of Granite Staters, or more, caught in the fierce grip of addiction.

Not a day has gone by since becoming commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services on Feb. 1 that I have not focused on combating this epidemic, which has claimed all too many lives, broken apart families and taken aim at our identity as a state.

Beyond the daily headlines, though, there is reason to be hopeful for New Hampshire’s recovery from the epidemic.

A coordinated, statewide approach is underway. Law enforcement has received new funding to help stop the spread of heroin and fentanyl. Drug courts are helping divert people to better paths. New approaches to treatment, greater investments in prevention and more opportunities to continue recovery after treatment ends are proceeding across the state.

DHHS is leveraging every resource to respond to the epidemic.

Under the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, thousands of people have utilized mental health and SUD services. DHHS has provided more than 3,000 doses of Narcan to community providers, schools, hospitals, and friends and family. Licensed drug and alcohol treatment providers are participating in the Student Loan Repayment Program, pledging a two- or three-year commitment to serve the underserved populations in the state in exchange.

Several significant measures are underway to provide new and more services to more people who need help.

New state and federal funding will direct $23 million this fiscal year and next to programs that provide prevention, treatment and recovery services. For the first time, withdrawal management services are helping people manage their recovery in a setting most befitting their circumstances. Treatment centers throughout the state are providing medication-assisted treatment, an evidence-based practice to treat addiction. A 24/7 crisis hotline will soon be available for people who need help in their moment of crisis.

Beginning July 1, mental health and SUD services will be covered under Medicaid, allowing 140,000 more residents to access those services as part of their Medicaid benefits.

As treatment demands increase, the state’s capacity to provide treatment must keep pace.

The 1115 Medicaid Transformation Waiver will allow the state to access up to $150 million over the next five years to transform the behavioral health and substance misuse delivery system and build treatment providers’ capacity.

Yet, we must all continue to identify new opportunities to overcome this crisis.

This week, the Legislature will act on Senate Bill 533, which will provide funding for dynamic new treatment and recovery programs. A workforce development initiative will increase the number of licensed behavioral health practitioners. Community health centers, mental health centers and primary care networks will offer medication- assisted treatment services. New providers will add capacity to the SUD treatment infrastructure. Hospital emergency department staff will receive training on responding to SUD issues around the clock.

Regional access points will work hand-in-hand with hospitals and treatment providers during the window of opportunity after an overdose to coordinate care to ensure that individuals leaving treatment can continue their recovery. SB 533 provides the essential funding for these new initiatives.

This is an important moment in our collective response to the opioid epidemic. SB 533 will continue to add new services and expand our ability to treat addiction. If New Hampshire is going to fully embrace recovery, we cannot let this moment pass us by.