With Connecticut ranked third in the nation in the rate of fatal opioid overdoses, legislators are asking attorneys to speak up and try to help reverse the worsening public health nightmare.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-5) and other legislators sounded the alarm during this year’s Connecticut Legal Conference, announcing that the opioid epidemic killed 917 Connecticut residents in 2016, up from 695 the previous year.
“This problem is real, and it’s serious,” Esty told a crowd of about 100 attorneys at a panel held in conjunction with the Connecticut Bar Association’s annual meeting at the Connecticut Convention Center. “We need to stop the stigma and start figuring out what to do to address these issues.”
At local fundraisers and Chamber of Commerce meetings, Esty said, constituents are pulling her aside with stories of friends and children who have become addicted to pills, or have moved on to heroin and deadly fentanyl-laced mixtures.
One family sought Esty’s help tracking down their daughter, which they were able to do with the help of law enforcement. In court, the daughter refused treatment at a local facility, and the following week, was found dead from an overdose, Esty said.
“That’s what’s at stake,” Esty said. “Time is wasting, and we need to get these issues addressed. We need to make prescribers aware of the risk, reduce overprescribing and make sure each and every one of us is doing what we can.”
A former U.S. Supreme Court attorney with Sidley Austin and clerk for U.S. District Judge Robert Keeton of the District of Massachusetts, Esty helped write last year’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. She is also a member of the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic.
Expert Dr. Dan Tobin of the Yale University School of Medicine underscored the emergency by citing recent statistics, including the fact that 214 million prescriptions are written for opiates each year in the U.S., enough to provide every adult American with a bottle.
Every day, 90 people die from an overdose, according to Tobin. In Connecticut, more than 100,000 people are using opiates for nonmedical purposes. About 12,000 of them are between the ages of 12 and 17. The average age for a fatal overdose is 42, he said.
Still, painkillers remain big business in America. Statistics show 100 million people in the U.S., or one in three adults, say they suffer from chronic pain, Tobin noted. About 40 million people report suffering from severe chronic pain.
Esty told NPR affiliate WAMC this week that she believes victims are hiding in plain sight. “I am sure some people in that room had family members who are now substance abusers who are trapped in the snare of opioid addiction,” she said of the CBA conference.
State Rep. Sean Scanlon (D-98) of Guilford said he wasn’t aware of the extent of the opioid crisis until a constituent relayed the story of her son, who played hockey in high school and was given a pill by a teammate. He never played another game sober, and at age 20, he died with a needle in his arm, Scanlon said.
Scanlon said he went to work on and passed state legislation limiting first prescription periods to one week and making the resuscitating drug Narcan more available. Then a neighbor died from an overdose.
“I was thinking I had done all this great work, and then my next-door neighbor dies,” he said. “I realized there is no silver-bullet solution. We can pass bills, but this cannot be solved with one public policy solution.”
State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas (R-70) of Naugatuck said concern over the opioid crisis is bipartisan and should have no boundaries in the private sector.
“I invite everyone to participate in any way you can,” she exhorted law professionals. “You are the experts. Submit testimony if you can. Encourage your colleagues to do the same. We’re really as strong and productive as all of us working together.”