Kuster meets with local officials to discuss opioid crisis
When it comes to the opioid epidemic in Keene, the desire to solve the problem is there. But a variety of obstacles have made the goal difficult to reach.
This was the main message the 11 representatives from the city — including staff, emergency responders and health care professionals — voiced Wednesday in the auditorium of Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene.
The group met with U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., to discuss a crisis that killed hundreds of people in the state last year alone.
The event was one of many informational brainstorming sessions Kuster said she’ll hold in upcoming months in New Hampshire. By meeting with community representatives throughout the state, she said she hopes to develop guidelines that others, such as doctors, residents and drug counselors, can learn from or replicate.
Timothy Fisher, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Cheshire Medical Center/Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, said the hospital will start a new program to help expectant mothers with treatment and recovery Feb. 1.
The program, Mothers in Recovery, will consist of medication-assisted treatment using buprenorphine, along with pregnancy and family-focused substance abuse treatment, Fisher said.
The program, which took more than a year to finalize, was made possible by a grant from the March of Dimes, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the health of mothers and their babies.
Fisher estimated, conservatively, that 10 percent of pregnant women in Cheshire County suffer from opioid abuse. Just last week, Fisher said four of his newly pregnant patients said they were seeking treatment.
“My biggest anxiety is that we will be very quickly overwhelmed,” Fisher said. “We realize we could do this full time.”
Keene Mayor Kendall W. Lane — who launched a city task force last year on drug use — said community members have excelled at collaborating to address opioid addiction in the area. But the lack of resources has proven difficult, and is apparent in many aspects of tackling the crisis, he said.
“We’re finding the gaps but we’re not finding ways to address those gaps,” he said.
Amelie Gooding, director of the Phoenix House in Keene, said staffing’s a big issue. Though skilled health care professionals might want to work at places like the Phoenix House, they may be drawn away by more competitive salaries.
“If you don’t have a doctor, you can’t have a program,” she said.
She said one way she’s thought about addressing this problem is to offer some sort of tuition forgiveness.
Gooding also raised concerns about gaps in insurance reimbursement for certain treatment options. For example, she said treatments such as acupuncture and other non-opioid prescriptions aren’t usually covered.
Kuster agreed this is a piece of the problem that must be fixed.
“There’s no doubt that insurance companies need to come to the table on this,” she said.
The use of recovery coaches, who can support those going through treatment or already in recovery, is an option local officials might employ.
Last week, 46 people went through a five-day, 40-hour recovery coach training program, according to John Manning, CEO of Southwestern Community Services.
Those participating in the training learned how to mentor and support everyone who is about to finish their treatment or is in long-term recovery from an addiction to alcohol or other drugs.
“That brings a whole new resource to the table,” Manning said.
But finding employers able to let their workers take time off can be difficult, Manning said.
“Getting people trained is the hardest part,” Manning said.
In terms of prevention, Jennifer Whitehead, a counselor at Keene High School, said there’s a lack of programs to educate younger generations about the dangers of drug abuse and addiction.
“It’s one of those missing pieces that could have a great impact,” she said.
Wednesday’s session with Kuster came after local officials and groups held discussions over the past few months to bring attention to the opioid epidemic.
As of Dec. 15, the N.H. State Medical Examiner’s Office reported 342 drug overdose deaths statewide in 2015, though officials estimated that total would rise to more than 400 by the year’s end. The majority of these deaths were caused by opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl.
This number was 326 in 2014, according to the office.
Going forward, Kuster said one of the ways she plans to help communities is to identify funding streams.
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