Advocates call for ‘State of Emergency’ to deal with N.Y. opioid crisis

Reprinted with permission from the Times Union

ALBANY – A nonprofit that assists people with staying drug-free wants Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a state of emergency over the heroin and opioid epidemic in New York, but he and top lawmakers question the value of that strategy.

More than 1,600 people have signed Columbia Pathways to Recovery’s petition on Change.org, calling on the governor to recognize the epidemic of overdoses and deaths as a public health emergency. The move comes on the heels of a spike in heroin overdoses in Columbia County in the last weekend in June.

The Columbia County Department of Health confirmed at least 13 overdoses and two deaths that weekend – an enormous amount for the rural county. Law enforcement officials suspect a “hot batch” — a dangerous mix of heroin and other more potent opioids like fentanyl or carfentanil — was circulating.

“This was multiple, so you know that’s a bad batch right away,” said Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann.

Columbia County has been ravaged by a rise in opioid abuse along with the rest of the region and state in recent years. The rate of emergency room visits in the county for opioid overdoses in 2015 was 27.6, calculated on a base of 100,000 people. That was more than three times the 2006 rate of 6.3, according to data analyzed by the Health Capital District Initiative.

Statewide, preliminary figures from the Department of Health analyzed by the Rockefeller Institute of Government last month showed a 54 percent increase in deaths from heroin overdoses between 2014 and 2015, and a 50 percent increase in emergency department visits in the same period.

It’s unclear what a “state of emergency” declaration would do to address the epidemic in New York. In its petition, Columbia Pathways calls on the state to make resources available immediately given the magnitude of the problem.

The chair of the state Assembly’s Health Committee, Democrat Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, opposes such a declaration, which would allow the Cuomo administration to waive state laws in response to the epidemic. But the assemblyman said that does not mean he is against a concerted effort to address the problem.

“‘Declaring an emergency’ does not mean focusing attention and resources; a governor can always do that,” Mr. Gottfried said.

Governors in Maryland and Florida have declared states of emergency in response to the opioid epidemic this year. In Florida, the declaration permitted the state to immediately draw down $27 million in federal funds it had already been granted for addiction services. In Maryland, the declaration was intended to increase and expedite coordination between state and local agencies.

A spokesman for Governor Cuomo, however, said New York does not need a declaration of state emergency to access additional funding.

“While some states have declared emergencies in order to access federal funding that would further support these efforts, New York — through the state budget process — has already secured access to an additional $25 million and can utilize these funds without a declaration,” said the spokesman.

This year’s state budget also included $214 million to expand addiction prevention and treatment services.

Lawmakers refer to that number as a record level of spending to address addiction. Yet advocates for treatment and recovery were disappointed to see the state legislative session end without a significant package of bills to address the opioid epidemic, as seen in recent years.

“It just wasn’t pushed,” said Stephanie Campbell, executive director of Friends of Recovery-New York. “It was like they ran out of steam, they went home.”

FOR-NY supported a package of 11 proposals made to the Senate and Assembly by the governor, which built on efforts of the last several years by, for instance, increasing insurance coverage for addiction treatment.

Senator George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, who co-chairs the Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, said there is some logic in a slowdown in legislation on addiction, though he described the current epidemic as a situation that requires “all hands on deck.”

“We need to see and evaluate legislatively what we’ve done, as well as the amount of funding,” Mr. Amedore said.

The Senate passed a package of 14 bills, which had more emphasis on law enforcement than in recent years, when the focus has been on addiction prevention and treatment. The Assembly did not sign on to them.

“A lot of it did focus on enforcement, which historically the Assembly is not on board with, unfortunately,” Amedore said.

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