Two New York state psychiatric facilities may be used as the latest resource in combatting heroin-related deaths in Long Island if some lawmakers get their way. In response to the tragic and escalating heroin and prescription opioid problem that has consumed the region, and made Suffolk County the second highest in the state for fatal heroin overdoses between 2009-2013, New York State Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) recently called for Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center to be repurposed toward treating the state’s addicted population. The lawmaker claimed in a recent press conference that the facilities are operating at merely a fraction of their capacity, and that the state is now in the midst of a bona fide epidemic.
Long Island and New York City’s five boroughs accounted for half of New York State’s 1,755 opioid-related deaths between 2009-2013, according to a recent report from the Department of Health.
While Suffolk is saddled with the unfortunate superlative of having one of the state’s highest rates of heroin-related deaths, it’s by no means alone in its struggle to keep residents alive and clean. In 2013, nearly 90,000 New York residents were admitted to treatment facilities for heroin and prescription opioid dependency. This is a 40 percent increase in just ten years. In Duchess County, there are more accidental drug overdoses than motor vehicle deaths per year. Many, including law enforcement officials and residents who have experienced the overdose death of a loved one, attribute much of the overdose problem to the dangerous and unpredictable substances with which heroin is often laced.
Many are calling for manufacturers of prescription opioids to be held more accountable for the overdose epidemic, including Suffolk County Legislator Dr. William Spencer, chairman of the legislature’s health committee. Spencer is calling for the pharmaceutical industry to “come to the table and accept more responsibility for the crisis.” Many who wind up addicted to heroin get there by first abusing prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone. These drugs mirror the effects of heroin, but have become much more difficult and expensive to procure than pure heroin, which can sell for as little as five dollars per baggie in the area.
Suffolk County also has the distinction of having the most deployments of the anti-overdose drug Narcan in New York since the state started its pilot program. Since Narcan became more accessible, statewide deployments have risen from 177 in 2013 to 1,608 in 2015. Suffolk County law enforcement saved more than 500 lives in 2015 alone with Narcan. What happens, however, after overdose victims wake up? Many are unable to get the help they need due to a simple question of supply and demand. In a phenomenon that clearly indicates the need for more treatment resources throughout New York, statewide treatment admissions fell sharply from 2010-2014 while opioid-related ER admissions jumped nearly three quarters. Without proper treatment, it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that abusers will wind up overdosing again in just a few weeks or months.
Whatever damage has already been done to the region, Suffolk County has finally begun to recognize the severity of its heroin and opioid abuse problem, and is taking incremental yet decisive action to get addiction sufferers the help they need. It’s unclear at the moment whether allocating space at existing state psychiatric treatment centers is part of the plan, but there is a sense of urgency to bring all ideas to the table.