njherald.com: Opioid crisis unites public, professionals at town hall


Photo by Warren Westura/New Jersey Herald - Sussex County Prosecutor Francis A. Koch, second from right, speaks at the Knock Out Opioid Abuse town hall event at the Center for Prevention and Counseling on Friday in Andover Township.



ANDOVER TOWNSHIP -- The opioid epidemic is very real and very much in our own backyards. So what is being done about it?

That was the question at the forefront Friday morning at The Center for Prevention and Counseling during the Knock Out Opioid Abuse town hall, a series presented by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

The town hall, one of many held throughout the state, brought together a crowd of more than 60 concerned members of the public and professionals from Sussex County's medical services, law enforcement, governmental agencies, and prevention and treatment organizations where the focus was placed on prescription drug dependency, heroin abuse, and the disease of addiction.

As he ran through statistics on opioid prescription usage and overdoses in the county and beyond that he deemed "startling," Dr. Anthony Brutico, Newton Medical Center's Emergency Department medical director, cited a report released just days ago from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The report, compiled by a list of physicians, revealed that from 2000 to 2015, the average lifespan of an American had slowly increased due to a decrease in key factors, such as trauma, chronic disease and cancer. But over the last year, it plateaued, and now it has dropped for the first time since 1993.

Public health officials believe that opiates -- whether legally prescribed or illegally obtained -- are to blame, reducing the overall average life expectancy by 21/2 months.

Brutico also said that opioid-related visits to the emergency room at Newton Medical Center rank as the 17th highest in the state among 75 hospitals, a statistic from the most recent data available in 2014.

"So you wonder what we are doing about it," Brutico said.

In addition to doctors now prescribing opiates to patients at the minimal dose of just five days -- which has come on the heels of a bill signed into law in February by Gov. Chris Christie to combat the opiate epidemic -- Brutico said alternate medicine therapies, such as nerve blockers and even pet and music therapy, are becoming standard.

Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch noted that overdose deaths in Sussex County increased 176 percent from 2013 to 2016, and although overdose deaths are on track to reach 30 to 35 this year -- nearing the number of 36 last year -- by no means does that mean drug abuse is "leveling out."

With Narcan deployments on pace to reach a minimum of 85 to 90 this year -- last year the total was 64 -- Koch said it's so much more than just numbers.

"A vast majority of crimes, whether it be burglaries from homes or cars, theft, shoplifting, almost all of those crimes are done to feed someone's substance abuse disorder," Koch said. "If we, as law enforcement, can do more to eliminate that up front, we will make Sussex County safer."

Koch spoke of the drug court program, an intensive supervised program of structured treatment and recovery services for first-time drug offenders through the Superior Court, as well as the C.L.E.A.R. program and the Opioid Overdose Recovery program, two additional programs addressing the opioid epidemic.

State Sen. Steve Oroho focused on the role legislation has played in battling the epidemic, specifically youth and treatment programs, making note that many of those programs run for only 30 days.

"I keep hearing (people think it should run) at least 90 days, that families need to be involved and monitoring needs to be done afterward," he said. "That is what I keep hearing for the keys to success."

Ann Marie Shafer, who was promoted as The Center for Prevention's director of recovery this month, spoke of how to get involved with drug prevention in the county.

She made key points using the words "monitor," where doctors have vowed to keep track of their patients' prescription drug use; "dispose," where eight police agencies in Sussex County offer 24/7 access to prescription disposal; "secure," urging those with prescription medications to keep them locked up safely; and "talk," where she said that it is important for others to speak to one another and voice their concerns.

Aaron Kucharski, advocacy coordinator with National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, who is in long-term recovery himself, said that he believes solutions to the problem can only come when "all hands are on deck."

"You need law enforcement, you need the Prosecutor's Office, you need recovery advocates and you need clinicians," he said. "Because guess what? The drugs are more powerful than all of us."

Rachel Wallace, director of clinical services at The Center for Prevention and Counseling, noted that one in seven individuals is diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder.

"Look around the room, it's your neighbor, it's your parents, it's your friends, it's you," she said, adding that anyone seeking refuge to give her a call immediately.

The second part of the town hall involved a question-and-answer session between members of the audience and the panel, with one member getting emotional when he spoke of the drug court program that had made such a positive difference in his life.

Freeholder Carl Lazzaro, after asking if there were parents in the room, stressed that it was "their problem."

"Put the damn cell phones down and have dinner with your children," he said. "The one thing no one wants to talk about is values. This whole things centers around values, and we have allowed the family structure to be beat to death. We have to restore those families. We need to put cell phones down. We need parents to sit down and talk to their children."

Shafer, who disagreed with the sentiment, said that she felt there were "plenty good parents at home" who did everything they could, but drug addiction can affect anyone, regardless of who they are and where they came from.

Organized by the Horizon Foundation of New Jersey, the town hall series was held in the midst of Recovery Month, which focuses on awareness and understanding of the disease.

New Jersey's Knock Out Opioid Abuse Day will be held on Oct. 6 when volunteers will be out in the community spreading the message "Before they prescribe, you decide" to help the public better understand the potential harmful effects of opioid prescription use.