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Panel Offers Testimony On Need For More Substance-Abuse Programs

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

A panel that included the step-mother of a woman who died of a heroin overdose told a House committee Thursday that proposed cuts in substance-abuse programs will exacerbate the state’s alarming rise in drug-related deaths.

“Last year, it was 321,” said Tym Rourke, chair of the Governor’s Commission on Prevention, Treatment and Recovery. “Next year it could be 600 and the year after that, 800.”

Rourke said New Hampshire now has the country’s highest per-capita rate of addiction and the second lowest treatment capacity. “This is going to mean many years of sustained focus and investment and partnership to get through,” he said,” with recognition that when we overcome our heroin epidemic there will be another substance that will follow it immediately.”

Earlier this month, the House cut about $6 million in spending for treatment and prevention from Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget proposal. The House’s budget eliminates the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, the state’s version of Medicaid expansion, which included substance-abuse benefits for standard Medicaid recipients.

Kriss Blevens told members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that access to inpatient substance-abuse treatment might have saved her step-daughter, Amber, who died of an overdose in Manchester on April 23, 2014.

Blevens said she feared the worst when she visited Amber in jail about two years before her death. She was desperate to begin treatment, Blevens recalled, but she would have to wait for it.

“I realized at that moment in time that there was no help for her,” she said.

Laconia Police Chief Christopher Adams said his department has changed its philosophy in an effort to get more drug users into treatment. The city of 18,000, which had 10 heroin-related deaths last year, has hired a prevention, enforcement and treatment coordinator who responds to every overdose to connect users and their families with treatment options.

Adams said the new approach puts less emphasis on arrests and more on understanding why people in the community are using drugs in the first place and directing them to the appropriate resource for help.

“You can’t arrest your way out of it,” he said. “You can’t put them through the justice system and spit them out on the other side and expect them to be cured. It’s not going to happen.”

Cheryle Pacapelli is executive director of Hope for NH Recovery, which is establishing so-called recovery-community centers that will serve as the foundation of a peer-to-peer support network.

Pacapelli said 23 million American are in long-term recovery, many of whom don’t know where to turn once they’ve completed their treatment programs. Recovery-community centers provide a structured environment that, according to Pacapelli, has been proven to reduce the chances of relapse.

Pacapelli says the concept has worked well around the country, especially in New England; Vermont has 12 centers, Massachusetts has eight and Connecticut has three. There are none in New Hampshire, she said.

“We have to get on this bus, because everybody is blowing us away,” she said. “And guess what? People are getting well in the states around us.”

Rourke said the recent debate over a casino revealed a “disconnect” among legislators. On the one hand, he said, they were willing to set aside money for gambling disorders. On the other, since 2000, lawmakers have diverted millions of dollars from the state’s alcohol fund away from its original purpose - to help pay for substance-abuse treatment.

“Sales of alcohol have increased nonstop in the 15 years since that alcohol fund has existed,” he said. “I think this idea that the pie doesn’t get bigger, when it comes to the business of alcohol, it does. And I think we as a state need to continue to consider our philosophical approach to that.”

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