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Is Safe Stations being phased out of state's war on drugs?

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 18. 2018 10:45AM




Manchester EMS Officer Chris Hickey started the Safe Station program. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

MANCHESTER — Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan said he’s worried that a proposed state plan to combat the opioid crisis won’t include Safe Stations, the Manchester-created program that provides an easy access point for addicts who want to get clean.

Last month, Gov. Chris Sununu announced he was submitting a plan to federal officials about how to spend an expected $45.8 million in new federal funding this fall. Its key component is a “hub-and-spoke” system: hospitals would operate centrally located “hubs” where drug users would be screened, evaluated and referred for services.

Under Safe Stations, fire stations throughout the city serve as an access point where drug users can walk in and be given a quick evaluation. The latest iteration pays Lyft drivers to bring them to the next step, where workers gauge their needs, their health insurance and help get them into treatment.

“It’s the big unknown right now. I’m not sure what his (Sununu’s) plan is for Safe Stations,” Goonan said on Monday. “To me, why would you change a good thing? You’d think you’d double down on this and expand it to other communities.”

Both Goonan and Mayor Joyce Craig said they have not received details about Sununu’s plan.

In a statement issued Monday evening, Sununu called Safe Stations an incredible program.

“That model served as the inspiration for our new hub-and-spoke system of care that will supplement and not replace Safe Stations. We expect that as the new system comes online, Safe Stations will integrate into this more comprehensive model,” Sununu said.

Over the summer, the state Department of Health and Human Services asked for input from New Hampshire people and organizations about how to spend $45.8 million that the agency is expected to receive from the Trump administration. Forty-one organizations submitted plans.

In late August, Sununu announced a plan for how to spend the money and submitted his plan to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for review. The funding could start arriving as early as the end of this month.

The hub-and-spoke model would provide 24-7 access and referral out of nine physical locations, according to the proposal, which state health officials provided upon request.

“The locations of these hubs will be situated to ensure that no one in NH has to travel more than 60 minutes to begin the process toward recovery,” the proposal said. The hub will receive referrals from a crisis call center and existing networks. People could also “directly contact the hub for services,” the plan reads.

The proposal calls for hospitals to operate the hubs.

Craig said she wants Safe Stations to continue and although she’s met with state Health and Human Service Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers to discuss the State Opioid Response grant, not many details of the hub-and-spoke model were disclosed.

“I don’t know what the governor’s plans are,” Craig said in an interview Monday. “Instead of decreasing access points, we should be adding to the number of access points.”

She said access points are particularly needed in other parts of the state, which don’t have Safe Stations. City leaders have long complained that drug users from other areas of the state travel to Manchester to access help through Safe Stations.

But Goonan said the drug users probably were in Manchester already; he said Safe Stations is not a big financial burden. The only cost is for the Lyft transportation, and recent donations have covered that for more than a year, Goonan said.

He said the fire department doesn’t complain about people from outside the city using the Manchester Safe Station. “You’re not getting it from me. You’re getting it from the politicians.”

Goonan said Safe Stations is successful because city fire stations are in neighborhoods and always open. They don’t charge and there is no line. The access point is available when the addict decides he needs help. And the firefighters aren’t judgmental. Last month, 194 people used the Manchester Safe Station.

“We handle this like a walk-in medical call,” Goonan said.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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