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Op-Ed: Heather Somers – Bold steps needed now to fight opioid abuse

Jun. 11, 2016

There is not a day that goes by that we do not hear of someone in our region who has overdosed or died due to opiate abuse. The stories are both heartbreaking and terrifying. Just this past week, we lost a 17-year-old girl from Griswold in a Groton hotel — a young life ended by heroin.

The heroin addict today is not what we imagined years ago. The addict with the dirty needle in the dark alley is far from today’s user. The modern addict is the young high school student with potential far and wide, the busy soccer mom, the grandmother, and the injured athlete. It is the well-off alongside the destitute, the hopeless and the once hopeful. This crisis has rapidly entrenched deep roots and effects people from all backgrounds. It does not discriminate and it has personally touched me and my family.

The personal impact led me to become a founding member of a grassroots organization called Shine a Light on Heroin nearly two years ago.

We can start turning back the tragic tide of this epidemic of addiction by taking bold, necessary steps to change policy here in Connecticut.

A first place to look is how we mandate the way medical professionals treat pain, often with the opioid-based painkillers that can kick off addiction.

Approximately 15 years ago, special interest groups successfully lobbied to have perceived pain added to the measurable vital signs — heart rate, temperature, respiratory performance and blood pressure, all highly measurable, quantifiable and easily observed by the medical professional — and that policy contributes to the commonplace prescription of opioid-based painkillers.

Physicians, whose compensation is now partially dependent on patient satisfaction measured by surveys, stand to lose out if patients feels they have not adequately been treated for their pain. Opiates, of course, are an essential prescription tool in the arsenal of the physician, but the existing system actively encourages physicians to consider the maximum pain management solution in many cases.

The over-prescription of opioid-based painkillers has created the circumstances for initial addiction to pills to grow into heroin addiction.

While lawmakers did cap opioid prescriptions in their last session, rethinking how we measure pain in the first place remains a critical policy front that has not been discussed or debated at all by politicians in Hartford. While they propose funding boosts to programs already proven ill-suited to stemming the crisis, people in Eastern Connecticut are dying.

We also need to start treating addicts as addicts, not as criminals. We should look at the success of drug courts in other states and consider whether that model — to encourage recovery rather than discipline — can be used or improved upon in Connecticut.

We also need more common-sense measures for both the treatment of withdrawal and rehab. Under current law, a user cannot be admitted to a detox facility unless they have the drug in their system. That means a user seeking help in a moment of sober clarity would be turned away from help.

Studies have shown it takes 12 month at least to fully recover, but most programs in Connecticut do not last that long.

Many of these common-sense solutions are cost-savers, an important factor amid Connecticut’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
Opioid addiction not only destroys the addict, but the family of the addict, the friends of the addict and entire communities.

We will lose a generation of young people if we don’t take action now. This is not a hopeless situation with no options. Even with the tight budgetary situation of our state thrust upon us by years of fiscal mismanagement by insiders in Hartford, we can pursue immediate reforms to begin turning the tide on addiction.

Let’s not wait for insiders in Hartford to propose any more half-measures or simple funding boosts; let’s take bold, decisive, common-sense action now to combat the crisis of opioid addiction.

Heathers Somers is the former mayor of Groton and the Republican candidate for state Senate in Connecticut’s 18th District.

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