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Toll of Heroin, Opioid Epidemic Brought Into Focus at Drug Task Force Meeting

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When discussing New Hampshire’s opioid epidemic, the focus is often on the big numbers — the hundreds of drug deaths, the thousands of pain prescriptions, the weeks it can take to get treatment.

But at the first meeting of a new task force looking at the issue in New Hampshire, those who testified brought those statistics to a personal level.

Attorney General Joe Foster told lawmakers about a family friend whose child was addicted to heroin.

Several other people who testified spoke about their own experiences with drug addiction, stressing the importance of expanding recovery services in New Hampshire.

New Futures Director Linda Saunders Paquette read from the obituary of a 22-year-old who died in October after trying unsuccessfully to find medical detox services.

The first responders who are dealing with drug issues said it's taking a toll on them, too.

"This is something that's draining on our time, it's draining on our conscience. We're seeing the same people day in and day out," said Christopher Hickey, with the Manchester Fire Department. "The fact that there isn't some place for these people to go to get the treatment they need to kick this and to aid in their recovery is frustrating beyond belief, for all of us."

In all, the task force heard from some 20 people over a daylong session on Tuesday. Those who spoke included representatives from Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, American Medical Response, state and Manchester law enforcement, the medical community and Gov. Maggie Hassan. Policy advisors for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also participated in Tuesday's meeting via phone to provide some outside perspective on how their state has tried to address substance abuse in recent years.

Over the next month, the New Hampshire task force will review proposals aimed at tackling heroin and opioid issues on a number of fronts — looking at insurance coverage for substance use disorders, penalties for fentanyl possession, prescribing practices, drug courts and more.

Task force members aim to settle on an initial set of recommendations by December 21 and plan to issue a final report by early January.

According to statistics from the New Hampshire Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, state officials have counted 295 drug deaths so far this year. Of those deaths, 183 were attributed to fentanyl alone or in combination with other substances, while 59 involved heroin either alone or in combination with other substances.

There were 326 drug deaths in New Hampshire in 2014 and 192 in 2013. Officials are projecting 357 total by the end of this year.

"Frankly," Foster said, "I think that number is conservative."

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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