May 10. 2017 8:59PM

HHS secretary gets Granite State view of opioid crisis, and an earful on proposed funding cuts

State House Bureau

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price shakes hands with Police Chief Nick Willard during a tour of the Central Fire Station on Wednesday. Also in the picture are presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price got an earful about New Hampshire’s opioid crisis at a “listening session” in the State House on Wednesday that was also attended by presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway and hosted by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Afterward, Price tried to deflect concerns about proposed cuts in the Office of National Drug Policy and the impact of the Republican health care plan on efforts to combat addiction.

Sununu expressed his support for the health care plan approved by the House and now working its way through the Senate, although he offered “some severe reservations” about the plan, particularly as regards access to insurance for substance abuse and mental health treatment.

“It is great to know that given the severity of the opioid crisis here in New Hampshire that we have a spotlight on us because we need one,” said Sununu, with key members of the Trump administration at his side. “It really allowed them to hear some of the solutions and what New Hampshire is doing.”

Conway said Trump’s experience campaigning in New Hampshire cemented his commitment to addressing the problem.

“President Trump made combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis a centerpiece of his administration in his first weeks on the job because he heard about it all through the campaign, virtually everywhere he went,” she said. “But I would say in New Hampshire he heard about it at a fever pitch.”

Secretary Price, an orthopedic surgeon, said the federal Department of Health and Human Services has laid out a five-part strategy to deal with the crisis, working with various federal agencies and the Office of National Drug Policy.

That strategy includes making certain that overdose-reversing drugs like Narcan are widely available and affordable; research into why the epidemic has hit some places like New Hampshire so much harder than others; research on non-euphoric pain killers; and continued review of the pain management practices that led doctors around the country to over-prescribe opioids.

He said the federal government plans to spend millions more to combat addiction, not less. Even though direct funding to the Office of National Drug Policy may be reduced, Price said various federal agencies in a better position to assess state grant applications would see funding increased.

Sununu endorses plan

When asked about significant cuts in federal support for Medicaid contained in the health care plan working its way through Congress, Sununu endorsed the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, but added that the details are still in play.

“Failure to reform the heath care system in the United States is not an option,” he said. “I appreciate the forward progress the House made. I do have reservations in some areas when you look at the details, some severe reservations about what was passed in some cases.”

“But people need to realize this is just one part of the process,” he added. “The Senate is going to go through the process and making their amendments and revisions. So moving the ball forward is for us a huge win. We’re still a little ways from the finish line, but I’m sure we’re going to get there.”

Concern about cuts

Sununu acknowledged widespread concern about proposed changes in funding for Medicaid and the availability of substance abuse treatment as an “essential benefit” in any health insurance policy, both of which have had a positive impact on dealing with the addiction crisis in the Granite State.

“A lot of folks are concerned, and I share that concern,” he said. “But it’s important that states have the flexibility because what is important to New Hampshire might be very different in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska or California.

The media was barred from observing the listening session, which included a wide range of stakeholders, but Second District Rep. Ann McLane Kuster did attend and briefed reporters afterward.

“He heard from a lot of people, and what’s extraordinary about New Hampshire, and this was commented on several times; we are working together,” she said. “In every community across the state people have come together; they are working together and frankly I think Secretary Price has a lot to learn from us. I’m glad he came.”

Visiting ‘Safe Station’

Price and Conway later joined the governor, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, Fire Chief Dan Goonan and Police Chief Nick Willard for a stop at Central Station to review the “Safe Station” program.

Manchester EMS coordinator Chris Hickey, who came up with the idea, said "Safe Station" has been used as a model for similar initiatives around New Hampshire. He said public safety departments around the country have reached out to him.

Stephanie Bergeron, executive director of nearby Serenity Place, the treatment provider for “Safe Station,” explained the services available for addicts who stop by seeking assistance and a path to recovery.

People can drop off needles and paraphernalia. Police are notified when addicts seeking help have illegal drugs on them, but only for the purpose of disposing of the drugs. "It's a whole different ball game when people walk in," Sununu noted. "It has been such a home run."

Price and Conway also got to meet Jim and Jeanne Moser of East Kingston, who lost their 27-year-old son to an opioid overdose in 2015, and have since dedicated themselves to promoting proper storage and disposal of prescription drugs, open conversation about opioids and de-stigmatizing addiction.

Union Leader staff writer Dan Tuohy contributed to this report.