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Advocates Say Urgent Action Needed To Curb New York’s Overdose Crisis
Addiction, overdose deaths will worsen if state doesn’t commit significant,long-term funding to behavioral health field, providers tell N.Y. lawmakers
By Bethany Bump Albany Times Union October 21, 2021

ALBANY — Advocates and individuals impacted by addiction are calling on New York lawmakers and government officials to make significant investments in the state’s behavioral health system, now that new funding streams are available, to curb the alarming rise in statewide overdose deaths.

At a public hearing Wednesday in Albany to review the impact of COVID-19 on the overdose crisis, advocates warned lawmakers that onetime funding increases and initiatives will not be sufficient to address the growing crisis, which has been exacerbated by the elimination of services throughout the pandemic and an ongoing worker shortage.

With a new administration and new funding streams coming in from opioid-related settlements and federal grants, they urged policymakers to act quickly and to make long-term investments that will prevent further deaths and create a more sustainable treatment system.

“We need your vigilance throughout the next budget cycle,” said John Coppola, executive director of the New York Association of Addiction Services and Professionals, to members of the state Senate’s joint task force on addiction, which hosted the hearing.

“It’s very hopeful that we have a new governor who will hopefully give you something to work with in the budget,” he continued. “That had been noticeably absent for the entire duration of Gov. Cuomo’s administration. We did not get a single budget from him where there was a noticeable commitment of state funding.”

Advocates and treatment providers have called for funding that matches the scope of the state’s overdose crisis for years, but often ended each budget cycle disappointed with funding they said barely kept pace with inflation. The lack of resources, they argued, resulted in constant staff turnover and a behavioral health system that failed to meet people’s needs due to
shuttered and reduced services.

The pandemic only exacerbated these issues, they said, and helped to fuel the isolation, depression and despair that often motivates people to use drugs and alcohol in the first place. That impact could be seen in provisional data released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which show overdose deaths jumped by nearly 30 percent nationwide last year to an all-time high of 93,000. New York also saw record overdose deaths of more than 5,100 last year, a 34 percent increase over 2019.

At the same time that overdose deaths were climbing, services were shrinking.

Many hospitals that were ordered to increase bed capacity at the beginning of the pandemic did so by converting their lower-paying detox and psychiatric beds. Many never converted them back, leaving entire regions of the state without access to inpatient help.

“Most hospitals disproportionately targeted psychiatric and detox beds to meet that need,” said Matthew Shapiro, associate director of public affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness-NYS. “And now that that mandate’s over we don’t see those beds coming back online. So that really adds to this crisis situation.”

Sen. Michelle Hinchey said her largely rural district in the Hudson Valley recently lost all of its inpatient detox and psychiatric beds for the same reason. That has forced families to take their loved ones to far-flung areas of the state or even out of state in order to receive care, she said.

“One hundred percent of our mental health and detox beds in our community are gone today, with no real end in sight,” she said. “They’ve moved over an hour away. And we know that the best care for anyone is when the beds are in your community.”

The pandemic had other impacts that advocates worry will have ripple effects for years to come.

More than 140,000 children nationwide lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, according to research published this month in the Journal of Pediatrics. That number is close to 7,000 in New York alone. Children of color were disproportionately hurt by these losses, the study found.

Andrea Smyth, executive director of the NYS Coalition for Children’s Behavioral Health, said the loss of a loved one is what’s known as an adverse childhood experience, or ACE.

“What really needs to be specified is that ACEs are associated with risks of every major cause of death, including suicide and overdose — if they are untreated,” she said. “It’s the treatment, then the acknowledgement … to the child that something has happened to them that is different that will make the difference in their lives.”

Nearly every speaker at Wednesday’s hearing said the issue of funding will be critical to efforts to reduce drug deaths going forward. More resources are needed for everything from expanding access to medication assisted treatment and crisis stabilization centers to bolstering harm reduction services and addiction prevention education in schools, they said.

Advocates are calling for a 5.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment increase for the behavioral health workforce in next year’s state budget, which they say is desperately needed to address the workforce shortage. They also want people who have lived through or lost loved ones to addiction to be appointed to the advisory board that will determine how New York spends
future opioid settlement funds.

“We know we’ve got settlement funds that’ll be here for 17 years,” said Coppola, referring to the billions of dollars drug companies have agreed to pay out in order to settle thousands of opioid-related lawsuits nationwide. “So I encourage you to take a look at all of the new sources of funding coming in and to look at those as a long term, sustainable foundation for
us to strengthen service delivery in New York state.”

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