After six months of community outreach and debate, members of Southampton Town’s Opioid Addiction Task Force presented draft recommendations for how to stem the crisis to the Southampton Town Board on June 21.
Their suggestions came with reminders of the importance of systemic and long-term approaches to public awareness, education, mental health services, insurance requirements and law enforcement approaches to dealing with addiction as a disease, regardless of the type of drug people are addicted to.
The nearly 40-member committee, broken down into four subcommittees focused on prevention and treatment of and recovery from addiction, as well as law enforcement, has been working to put the recommendations together since last October.
While their work was focused on Southampton, opioid addiction is a nationwide problem, and after the presentation, Downstate Director of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) Manuel Mosquera said he was disappointed to see the town’s committee attempting to develop policy without the assistance of other agencies who are all working on the same issues.
“This is not a town problem, a county problem, or a state problem. It’s bigger than all of us,” he said. “A lot of other people are working on the same thing… I would like to have you folks not reinvent the wheel.”
Each of the subcommittees gave a brief presentation about their recommendations at the June 21 town board work session, followed by a question and answer period in which the board did not ask questions. The board is now planning to review and work to implement the recommendations.
Speaking for the Prevention subcommittee, Kym Laube of HUGS reminded board members that the results of prevention programs may take a long time to be seen and progress is measured in the 5 to 10-year time frame. She pointed out that every dollar spent on prevention saves between $10 and $22 in costs associated with treatment once people become addicts.
She added that mental health issues have become a severe problem among young people, who often turn to substance abuse as a self-medicating solution to their sense of isolation.
Southampton Town Youth Bureau Director Nancy Lynott added that better regional transportation would help young people feel less isolated, and more youth centers would also be a help.
Ms. Lynott was less optimistic about a suggestion she’d heard numerous times during the subcommittee’s outreach that a major arena be built to help attract major musical acts to the area.
Hampton Bays School District Superintendent Lars Clemenson said multi-year surveys of young people have shown that they’re engaging in sex and drug use later in their teenage years, but students are also reporting more stress, anxiety and isolation earlier in their lives.
Karen Martin, Acting Executive Director of Alternatives Counseling Services, and Susan Sargent of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services gave an overview of the challenges facing organizations focused on treatment of substance abuse.
Foremost among their worries are the difficulties they have dealing with insurance companies, which used to allow 30 days of inpatient treatment, and now will only pay for eight to 10 days.
“Eight to 10 days is an extended detox period. It’s not inpatient treatment,” said Ms. Martin. “Insurance companies won’t pay for a higher level of care. We’re really setting people up to fail. If you’re willing to go get help, you need help then.”
Ms. Sargent said insurance companies have been telling treatment program staff that their potential patients need to fail twice at outpatient treatment before they will be admitted to an inpatient program, but Mr. Mosquera later said that OASAS had taken legal action that was effective in stopping that policy.
Ms. Sargent suggested that an anonymous hotline be set up to help people having trouble with insurance companies, and also stressed the importance of mental health care, while Ms. Martin suggested increased marketing for outpatient services, including four programs on the South Fork — one run by Catholic Charities in Hampton Bays, Phoenix House in East Hampton, and other programs in Montauk and Southampton.
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki said his department has been using tracking analytics to correlate crimes that can be associated with drug users — like thefts and car-break-ins to get money for drugs, to look for a pattern between those incidents and drug activity. He added that the department has been actively working to get the word out when they discover a pattern of ultra-toxic fentanyl appearing in local heroin.
He added that the department is now sending a detective to every overdose case reported, to see if they can gain information about drug sale patterns, and that the department is also working to get the word out that if drugs are present at the site of an overdose, no one will be prosecuted because the police department is focused on saving lives.
There has been just one death from an opioid overdose in Southampton Town so far this year, down from 12 deaths at this time last year.
Mr. Mosquera, of OASAS, later added that he believes sending “peer engagement specialists,” people who are in recovery, to meet with people who have been saved from an overdose in the hospital, is more effective than having law enforcement interact with them.
“It’s hard for a cop or someone in a position of authority to speak to someone at that time,” he said.
Mark Epley, Executive Director of the Seafield Center, and community leader Alfredo Merat spoke on behalf of the Recovery subcommittee, a committee added after substance abuse professionals pointed out to the task force that initial treatment of substance abuse is a different matter than dealing with recovery.
“Recovery is all about sustainability, about developing relationships with a group to help you lead your life,” said Mr. Epley. “Addiction never goes away. Recovery is all about a long-term lifestyle.”
Mr. Epley said addicts, those in recovery, in treatment and untreated, have always and will likely always make up 11 percent of the population.
“Recovery is forever, and it’s day by day,” said Mr. Merat, who has been a fervent advocate for 12-step programs.
“It’s changed me over the years, and touched me. It’s people helping each other for no money,” he said. “One addict to another addict is what works. It should not be looked at in a scary way. We have 18-year-olds ready to talk to other 18-year-olds about what it’s like.”
“Parents need to look in the mirror,” said Mr. Epley. “If you’re drinking and doing drugs, that’s what your kids are going to do.”
They both sang the praises of the Hauppauge-based Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center (thriveli.org), while hoping for a similar center on the East End.
Mr. Epley said there’s a place for sober houses, but some are far better managed than others, and the sober house industry isn’t regulated like other substance abuse facilities.
“If you go home, you go back to the same environment, with family members that might need to go to treatment,” he said. “That’s why sober housing is important. You develop good habits around the 12 steps.”
Mr. Mosquera, of OASAS, rounded out the discussion.
“OASAS is working on a lot of things that would either dovetail, enhance or exceed what you’re trying to do,” he said. “There’s a lot happening that you folks may not be aware of.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman agreed.
“This is not the end. It’s just the beginning,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we are meeting with OASAS and not replicating services… If work is being done and available, we need to know about that.”