With opioid-related deaths on the rise, nonprofits redouble education efforts

By Kevin Zimmerman

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As the opioid crisis grows, several Connecticut-based organizations are redoubling their education efforts about the outcomes that abusing such drugs as methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone can have.

One of those groups, the Newtown Parent Connection, is presenting a proactive substance abuse program in Newtown March 27-29 with two of the nation’s top experts on drugs – former DEA Special Agent Robert M. Stutman and former Michigan judge and anti-drug advocate Jodi Switalski. The educational sessions are designed to reach roughly 1,600 students in grades 7 through 12, as well as parents, administrators, law enforcement, medical professionals and the general public.

Newtown Parent Connection grew from the prescription drug overdose of the son of founder and Executive Director Dorrie Carolan, who began the 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1993. “There was, and still is, this misconception that only ‘bad kids’ are experimenting with drugs,” Carolan said from her office at 2 Washington Square. “But that is pretty obviously not the case.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999, with over 183,000 people in the U.S. dying from such overdoses between 1999 and 2015.

The cost to businesses is also running rampant. According to health information firm Castlight Health, opioid abuse costs the U.S. economy nearly $56 billion per year, while the American Society of Addiction Medicine reported last year that employers lose $10 billion a year from absenteeism and lost productivity due to opioid abuse. Opioid abusers cost employers nearly twice as much ($19,450) in medical expenses on average annually as do nonabusers ($10,853), according to Castlight.

According to James Gill, Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, there were 917 fatal overdoses in 2016, a 25.8 percent increase over 2015’s figure of 729. Most of those overdoses involved an opioid, Gill’s office said, adding that deaths involving synthetic opioid Fentanyl totaled 479 last year, a 155 percent rise over 2015.

On a city-by-city basis, Hartford led the data with 62 opioid-related deaths, but Bridgeport was second with 49. Further down the list were Stratford, 20; Danbury, 17; Shelton, 13; Norwalk, 10; and Stamford, 9.

Though Newtown recorded just three such deaths, it wasn’t that long ago that the town had a reputation as a heroin haven, with 2003 representing a sort of high-water mark for overdose deaths. “A lot of people here thought it wasn’t in Newtown, but this was almost the capital of where people were buying heroin,” Carolan said.

Newtown Parent Connection established what Carolan called “a hope and support group” that year, which continues to meet every Thursday at 7 p.m. at the NPC office, as well as another that meets at 7 p.m. each Wednesday at the First Congregational Church in Fairfield.

Carolan said the group now is fully supported by the likes of First Selectman Pat Llodra, the town’s police department and schools Superintendent Joseph V. Erardi, but that the public at large still prefers to ignore what she considers an ongoing problem.

“I have booths at the high school and middle school with literature, and a lot of parents take the attitude of, ‘My kids aren’t using’,” she said. “But we’ve seen time and again that it can be your kids.”

Bringing in Stutman and Switalski, who tour nationally at a reported cost of $10,000 per day, posed a significant financial challenge for NPC. Research eventually led Carolan to Purchase, N.Y.-based Solo Technology Holdings LLC, an emerging “internet of things” company focused on creating technology products to address the nation’s prescription drug abuse problem.

According to Solo President/COO Mitch Danzig, the timing for sponsoring the Newtown event was ideal, as the company had just announced its first product, the iKeyp (pronounced “I Keep”) – an integrated personal safe designed to prevent access to prescription drugs in the home by anyone other than the patient.

“When we see an opportunity for educational awareness, and to get our product out there, we’re interested,” Danzig said. “We’ve been sponsoring a variety of these types of events.”

Citing health care industry data estimating that 2,500 kids between the ages of 12 and 17 abuse pain relievers for the first time each day, Danzig said, “If we can make that 2,499 kids, that’s great. Obviously we want fewer than that, but it’s a start.”

Exposure to the patent-pending iKeyp is important as well. Designed to fit easily inside bathroom or kitchen cabinets and featuring a programmable keypad, the product can hold up to eight prescription bottles. By connecting the iKeyp to the internet, it can communicate in near real-time to provide security alerts and medication adherence reminders to the owner of the safe via text, email or the iKeyp mobile app.

Solo will give away five free safes to the first 100 registrants at the Newtown event, Danzig said. The company regularly donates about 25 percent of its funds to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, he added. The product sells online for $119, although Solo regularly offers discounts.

Meanwhile, anti-opioid abuse activity continues around the county. Positive Directions, a Westport-based counseling service that has been serving the county since 1971, earlier this month launched a new survey in conjunction with the Norwalk Community Prevention Task Force to better understand that community’s attitudes towards youth substance use.

Last November, Norwalk-based Liberation Programs Inc., a behavioral health organization specializing in substance abuse treatment, presented an opioid-usage report it wrote with Greenwich’s Department of Social Services to that city’s Board of Selectmen.

Not all developments have been positive, however. Earlier this month came word that the Danbury branch of the state’s Western Connecticut Mental Health Network is expected to be privatized as part of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed budget, with its 39 employees transferred to other offices and its 300-plus clients needing to find alternative means for treating their mental health and addiction issues. The move would reportedly save the state about $1 million.

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