Sununu vows to keep reforming Doorways Program

Gov. Chris Sununu says it's no time to take victory laps even though New Hampshire was one of only two states without a jump in overdose deaths during 2020.

SALEM — Despite being one of two states without a jump in drug overdoses in 2020, New Hampshire has “so long to go” in battling the opioid epidemic, Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday.

Sununu, who met privately with a group of clients of the Granite Recovery Center in Salem, said the state needs to do more to boost mental health services and improve efforts in public schools to discourage children from experimenting with drugs.

According to new figures from the Centers for Disease Control, New Hampshire and South Dakota were the only states without increases in overdose death cases during 2020.

New Hampshire’s overdose deaths dropped from 395 in 2019 to 393 last year — less than 1%. South Dakota had a 15.9% decline in overdose deaths.

Drug overdose deaths rose by 29.6% nationally last year, according to the CDC.

“We haven’t won this. We have so long to go,” Sununu told reporters. “It is tragic to see what is happening in the rest of the country.”

The governor said the Doorways Program he devised — “hub and spoke” treatment that expanded services and brought them closer to where addicts live — has helped the state keep overdose deaths from dramatically rising.

Sununu recalled overdose deaths rose significantly in the years after he first took office in 2017, until the state changed its approach to delivering services.

“We threw more money at the problem doing the same old thing and thought it would make a difference, but it didn’t,” Sununu said.

Eric Spofford, a co-founder of the Granite Recovery Centers, said he was glad Sununu was emphasizing the issue.

“We are glad this is not being forgotten, as this problem has not gone away, and in fact has gotten worse in the past 18 months,” Spofford said.

NH will consider deal

The state of New Hampshire will review whether to be part of a $26 billion settlement announced with three major manufacturers of opioids last Wednesday, Sununu said.

“There is a lot of money, and that is great,” he said.

“We will make sure those dollars go exactly where they should be going.”

Massachusetts’ was among the 10 states with the smallest increases in overdose deaths during 2020, at 3.5%.

Elsewhere in New England, overdose deaths rose 57.6% in Vermont, 35.4% in Maine, 24.9% in Rhode Island and 12.5% in Connecticut.

Sununu said some of the clients said that “imagery” used by media in reporting about drug addiction can be harmful to addicts.

“The imagery that we use, with needles and pills every time we talk about it, that’s not helpful,” Sununu said.

Patrick Tufts, chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention and Treatment, said the state has been careful how it portrays the Doorways program.

“We cannot stereotype or demonize people who are doing the hard work in terms of fighting the addiction,” Tufts said.

Sununu said that in the coming months the state will roll out a new public relations campaign in support of a rebranding of the program.

“We are asking for your help to push that message — call 211. That first step here can be really, really hard,” he said.

To date, some prevention efforts have actually ended up encouraging youths to try drugs, the governor said.

“When school officials are saying there isn’t a fentanyl, heroin, meth problem, either they are lying to themselves or they are not looking hard enough,” he said.

“Either way, they are lying to their kids.”