July 25. 2018 12:55AM

Beyond the Stigma: Public explores how best to spend federal grant money in opioid fight

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM
New Hampshire Union Leader


Jeffrey Meyers, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, explains the parameters of the federal grant money coming into the state this fall. (Shawne K. Wickham/UNION LEADER)

Matthew Houde, vice president for government relations at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. speaks at Monday's public hearing on the federal State Opioid Response grant that will bring nearly $23 million in new funding to the state this fall. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)


Cheryl Wilkie, chief operating officer of the Farnum Center, makes a point during Monday's public hearing in Concord. Shawne K. Wickham/Sunday News (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)


Manchester businessman John Smith urges the state to consider funding alternative treatment methods, such as peripheral nerve stimulation, for opioid addiction during Monday's public hearing on the State Opioid Response grant funding. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)


CONCORD — Members of the public got the chance Monday evening to weigh in on how the state should spend nearly $23 million in federal funds coming to New Hampshire to address the opioid crisis this fall — and they had plenty of ideas.

Recovery housing, peer support, workforce development, job training, mobile recovery services and transportation, as well as more unconventional ideas such as acupuncture detox, recreation therapy and peripheral nerve stimulation, were all discussed during a hearing hosted by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The hearing drew about 100 people and lasted nearly three hours. Treatment providers, lawmakers, family members and recovery advocates were among those in attendance.

Perhaps the most poignant testimony came from Corinne Dodge, whose 25-year-old grandson died of an overdose three weeks ago. She called for funding for affordable detox programs, recovery services and sober living, and asked the state to develop a certification program for such programs to make sure the funding is spent wisely.

“On behalf of our children who are dying, and our families who are suffering, I respectfully ask you to provide effective treatment for this deadly disease,” she said.

The State Opioid Response (SOR) grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) aims to: increase access to medication-assisted treatment; reduce unmet treatment needs; and reduce overdose deaths through prevention, treatment and recovery activities.

Katja Fox, director of the state division for behavioral health, stressed that public input is key in guiding the state’s plan to spend the money over the next two years. “We really want to hear what you believe is needed to make the system better and to really address the needs of the individuals that we all serve,” she said.

Mike Bradley, a mental health counselor, called the current crisis “the moral equivalent of war.”

“I honestly think this is a situation that’s going to take a generation or more to get a handle on,” he said.

He called for a focus on long-term treatment and prevention, warning that alcohol and other drugs are as much of a problem as opioids. “I fear that when the opioid deaths dip below 250 per year, there’ll be a sigh of relief and people will think that the crisis is over and we can go back to normal,” he said. “That’s just not the case.”

Fox replied that while the grant funding is aimed at the opioid crisis, “We’re really going to focus on trying to build a system that ... works for all substances, and really gets at the roots of addiction.”

Several speakers stressed the importance of addressing co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders.

Ken Norton, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire, asked for more funding for family support services, grief support groups and suicide prevention. Noting “a big overlap” between suicides and drug overdoses, he said, “What they share in common is that they are deaths of despair and they are tragedies, every single one, for people in our state.”

Cheryle Pacapelli, director of peer recovery support services at Harbor Homes in Nashua, had a wish list for state officials: expanding services for those involved in drug court; programs to support family reunification; services for women and children; transportation; and home visits by recovery coaches.

Patty Crooker from Nashua’s public health department urged the creation of a state scholarship fund to provide services to individuals who don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford insurance.

Timothy Soucy, Manchester’s public health director, said the state’s largest city is bearing a “disproportionate burden” of the opioid crisis, and he urged state leaders to dispense the new funding to reflect that. He said the most critical needs include programs for pregnant and parenting women; recovery housing and supports; and prevention programs in the community and schools.

“We ask that you look at needs first, and recognize Manchester as the epicenter of resources,” Soucy said. “Investing in Manchester means better outcomes for the entire state.”

The state faces a tight deadline to apply for the funding, designed to get the money out quickly. DHHS has to file its proposal with SAMHSA by Aug. 13 and the funding should be confirmed by Sept. 30. Agencies will then have 90 days to begin providing services.

The public comment period closes this Friday at 5 p.m. DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers said the department plans to post all written comments submitted, “so the public at large can see what types of proposals have been brought forward.”

• For more information about the SOR grant, visit: dhhs.nh.gov/dcbcs/bdas/sor.htm. Written comments can be submitted until July 27 at: SOR@dhhs.nh.gov.

Beyond the Stigma, sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, is funded by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire, and private individuals. Contact reporter Shawne K. Wickham at swickham@unionleader.com.