Heroin task force offers strategy to fight epidemic

Two months ago, I was named to the New York State Senate Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction. The task force was established to study the alarming rise in use of heroin and opioids which is tearing communities and families apart. I knew then that we were facing a serious problem, and now, after digging even deeper into the issue, I fully understand just how severe and widespread this epidemic has become.

Over the past nine weeks, task force members held 18 forums across New York, bringing together experts in addiction treatment, law enforcement officials, and individuals who told personal stories of heroinís destruction.

I hosted one of the forums in Oneonta and a courageous mother, Deb France, told her devastating story. Debís son Jeremy became addicted to painkillers following a dental procedure. His addiction, which led him to heroin, spiraled out of control and he later committed suicide. During his darkest days, Jeremyís parents were forced to battle insurance companies to help him receive doctor recommended in-patient treatment. This simply is unacceptable.



In all, more than 200 panelists testified at the hearings. Forum participants examined the issues surrounding the increase in drug abuse, addiction and drug related crimes, and potential solutions. The testimony directed the task forceís legislative response to three key areas: preventing drug abuse and overdoses; increasing the availability and efficacy of addiction treatment; and enhancing the tools provided to law enforcement to keep heroin off the streets. As a result, 25 bills have been introduced for senate action.

Among the bills, one that I am sponsoring that would address the situation Deb France and so many others have faced Ė access to insurance coverage for substance abuse treatment and dependency services. The measure (S.7662) requires health plans to use a medical director who specializes in substance abuse when making coverage decisions, standardizes the criteria used to make coverage determinations, and creates a workgroup to study and make recommendations on improving access to treatment services.

My bill will also create an expedited appeal process for individuals when services are denied, and requires that health plans pay for treatment while a denial is being appealed. Time and again, we have heard stories from families whose loved ones have been forced to leave treatment due to a planís denial of services. This legislation will ensure that no one is kicked out of treatment while an appeal is taking place.

Additional bills include:

∑ Increasing public awareness (S.7654): Requires the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) and the Department of Health (DOH) to establish the Heroin and Prescription Opioid Pain Medication Addiction Awareness and Education Program. The program would utilize social and mass media to reduce the stigma associated with drug addiction, while increasing publicís knowledge about the dangers of opioid and heroin abuse, the signs of addiction, and relevant programs and resources.

∑ Establishing the crime of transporting an opioid controlled substance (S.7659): Allows prosecution for a new crime when an individual unlawfully transports an opioid any distance greater than five miles within the state, or from one county to another county within the state, to address diversion and distribution of heroin and prescription drugs.

∑ Facilitating the conviction of drug dealers (S.7169): Provides that possession of 50 or more packages of a Schedule I opium derivative, or possession of $300 or more worth of such drugs, is presumptive evidence of a personís intent to sell.

A link to the complete report from the heroin task force, along with additional bills that have been introduced can be found on my website: www.senatorjimseward.com.

When the heroin task force was formed, I said we needed to develop a multi-prong strategy to fight this epidemic. Taken collectively, these measures meet that objective and will build on current education, prevention, and law enforcement efforts, and will save lives.

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