ONEONTA, New York – Every week Vertava Health breaks down the drug epidemic state by state. We have brought you the facts on Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi. This week we take our investigation to New York, where heroin has wreaked havoc throughout urban cities like Staten Island, New York City and Long Island and swept its way up to the northern, rural part of the state. In the tiny town of Oneonta, there are likely more cows than people. Nestled in southern Otsego County, the “City of the Hills” has a population of around 13,000. Which is why, with only one hospital, it was devastated a couple of weeks ago when 2 people died and 12 overdosed, all from a batch of heroin laced with a drug called Fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a deadly painkiller that can be absorbed through the skin and inhaled. It can cause a range of symptoms from problems breathing to death. The Fentanyl outbreak is so prevalent in heroin busts everywhere that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations has distributed a drug called Evzio to their agents, which is an inhalant releasing Naxalone (commonly known as Narcon), a known antidote for opioid overdoses. To our knowledge, no arrests have been made in this particular batch of fentanyl-laced heroin that made its way to Oneonta, but Dr. Julia Dostal of the New York Council on Alcoholism and Addiction says there’s a wave of people turning to the drug, a pattern we at Vertava Health have seen in every state since we started conducting these investigations. It starts with prescription painkillers like oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone, percocet being vastly over-prescribed. The states then put a tracking system in place for doctors to prevent doctor shopping and overprescription, leaving the addict to turn to heroin. “The patient is then limited to one prescription from one doctor,” says Dr. Dostal. “They are then forced into withdrawal from opioid use, which is horrendous. They become very sick. So those in withdrawal turn to the streets. What’s so insidious about this epidemic is that on the street, one pill may cost you anywhere between $40-$100. You can buy a bag of heroin for $10.” New York State recently passed the I-STOP legislation, which made it more difficult to obtain prescription pain meds. This caused a spike in heroin use. Dr. Dostal says while there’s not a specific demographic affected by the heroin use (it encompasses all races, sexualities and economic classes), the deaths seem to be ranging from around ages 22-38. For this reason, Governor Cuomo launched Combat Heroin, a campaign against use of the illegal drug. Dr. Dostal was at a meeting with the Governor’s staff at the time of our interview, and says the state is working with her agency to do everything they can to combat the problem. “It’s like heroin was a tsunami that started downstate and has now started hitting us in the rural part of the state,” says Dr. Dostal. “In the state of New York, opioid and heroin arrests have both tripled in the past 18 months.” Dr. Dostal says in the rural areas, the problem is the lack of detox facilities and resources. “When someone is at the point of injecting heroin, they’re not doing it to party or get high anymore,” says Dr. Dostal. “They’re doing it so they don’t get sick.” The amount of detox treatment facilities in Oneonta or the entire county for that matter? Zero. A person going through potentially deadly withdrawals has to drive about an hour and a half to get to the nearest detox facility. The closest would be in Binghamton or Albany. But the problem doesn’t stop there. Even in urban areas where there are a large amount of treatment facilities, there’s around 500 people on the waiting list. “We have to give doctors the resources to help people taper off of medications without getting sick,” says Dr. Dostal. “There is not enough provision and training to safely taper someone in the rural areas.” Drugs like Suboxone can aid in the tapering of high level narcotics such as oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone and percocet; but federal regulations make it difficult to distribute taper drugs. Federal law limits a doctor to having only 100 patients on the drug Suboxone at a time, which is not nearly enough provision to tackle the widespread addiction. Dr. Dostal says treatment is key. “100%. It is absolutely imperative when someone is coming off of pain killers or heroin that they are involved in substance use treatment.” With the state on board, many drug prevention agencies like LEAF (Leatherstocking Education on Alcoholism/Addicts Foundation) have worked in prevention aid. Luckily, prevention organizations haven’t seen the drastic cuts Mississippi faces every year. Rural New York is not the only part of the state battling heroin. According to the New York Times, Staten Island has required almost all of its police and emergency workers to carry Naloxone to aid in heroin overdoses. Once prominent members of society in nice homes have now taken to the streets looking for the next high. Local rap group White Trash Clan referred to Staten Island as a “painkiller paradise” in their 2012 song “My World is Blue”. Reports actress Sharissa Turk, who stars as the Blue Fairy in the video for “My World is Blue” was recently arrested for selling Oxycodone to undercover police Closed group “Clean is the New Dirty” just formed a few months ago and has put together a Facebook following that has already attracted 622 members and inspired several other groups. The state also has a growing meth problem (drug cartels are able to produce it cheaply and with high quality). The state has a flow of drugs coming up from lower state and New Jersey and being distributed by low level dealers in the small upstate communities. At one local LEAF meeting, a doctor stood up and said their hospital had 3 newborns detoxing from drugs. LEAF is working to tackle the opioid issues by forming task forces that include prevention, mental health and recovery communities, as well as not for profit charities like Catholic Charities. The charity was planning to bring a needle exchange program called “Safe Point” into the area, but unfortunately the funding was pulled and they are trying to figure out other options. LEAF is trying to work with the state’s medical community but says there’s sometimes a lack of desire to confront addiction issues. Some of the clinics are just now starting to implement SBIRT (Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment), but no one has a clear idea of what to do for people once a problem is discovered. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is trying to get Oneida County designated as a federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area to help address the recent heroin use and drug-related crime. This could urge the federal government to assist more in the battle against the drug. Dr. Dostal warns states on the verge of the switch from prescription painkillers to heroin that resources for treatment and education are the most important tools they have to fight the epidemic. And the attitude toward the addict has to change. “We can no longer look at heroin addiction as us versus them,” says Dr. Dostal. “It’s all us.” Vertava Health receives hundreds of calls every day from New York state. As the need for heroin drug addiction treatment increases and the resources are few and far between, we are staffed and ready to take more patients from the Northeast. Our company is monitoring the situation, and we are here to help. If you or someone you love might be struggling with addiction, call our helpline at 1.888.614.2251. Julia Dostal, PhD, is the Executive Director of the LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addictions, the Otsego County Affiliate of the National Council on Addictions and Drug Dependencies. Dr. Dostal received a Bachelor’s degree in music in 1984 and her Master’s and Specialist’s degree in Counseling and Community Service in 1991 and 1992 respectively. After working in the field of substance use prevention for more than 12 years, Dr. Dostal continued her professional development by studying Psychology and earning her PhD in 2006. Currently, Dr. Dostal serves as the President of the National Professional Association of Council Executives (PACE) and as the President of the Council on Addiction of New York State (CANYS). She is a founding committee member of The New York Alcohol Policy Alliance (NYAPA), as well as the chair of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency (NCADD) Affiliate Conference. She also teaches an upper division course on addiction at SUNY Oneonta in the Human Ecology Department. Julie has been invited as a speaker at local, State, National and International events on topics ranging from substance use prevention, addiction science, weight loss surgery and addiction, community coalition building, media literacy, and problem gambling.