Health officials working closely with an ongoing opioid addiction epidemic say the problem is not going away any time soon. But New York State is committing $213 million to help expand treatment, recovery and prevention programs with the hope the tide may soon turn.
Of the money set aside in the state budget for opioid addiction efforts, Erie County will receive $16 million. Last month, seven Erie County residents died within a 24-hour period, as the result of what health officials say was an especially lethal mix of heroin and fentanyl.
Over a five-year period, from 2010 to 2015, drug-related deaths in Erie County increased by 256 percent, health officials said. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says the county continues to try everything until it finds how it may lower opioid cases. He likened it to the same strategy Franklin Roosevelt used to take on the Great Depression, "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks."
"It took more than a decade for this community to get into this crisis," Poloncarz said. "It's been a crisis that's affecting the entire country. Only by working together, by throwing all these different types of programs and all these different types of treatment opportunities available, will we get out of it."
Making more treatment beds available is only one challenge. Anne Constantino, president and CEO of Horizon Health Services, said there's also pressure to make sure enough staff is in place. The people working on the front lines, she believes, need to be better compensated. But that's easier said than done.
"The revenues don't really support the cost of operation," Constantino said. "If staff is your biggest cost, then it's reflected in their salaries, which is unfortunate."
Among those in attendance were a couple whose son recently died after a battle with addiction. They did not speak. But Avi Israel, founder of Save The Michaels of the World, expressed his regrets and told them "I wish we could have done something."
"Unfortunately, this epidemic is not slowing down," Israel said. "It's picking up speed."
Constantino concured, saying in her 30-plus years of work she has not seen a level of addiction as serious as what is seen today.
"We are in the midst of the worst drug overdose epidemic in American history, the worst drug addiction crisis ever," she said. "We've never seen anything like this."
One of the numerous state lawmakers present, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, took the opportunity to announce that bill is being drafted that would require New York State to make naloxone (Narcan) training available.
"People who are sick with this disease, they should have access to it too," Peoples-Stokes said. "And their loved ones, people who are around them, should know how to administer it. Much like years ago, we were taught how to do CPR, we should all be taught how to administer Narcan."