Gary Mendell, a father from Easton, was in New London on Wednesday to talk about the role the government can play in shifting society’s response to drug addiction from shaming to saving.
Mendell, a former hotel executive, stood alongside Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, three state commissioners, numerous lawmakers, and some local officials who were gathered at the Alliance For Living to commemorate a new law to help curb heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.
Mendell founded Shatterproof, a Norwalk-based organization committed to fighting drug addiction, after his eldest son died by suicide at age 25. The Shatterproof website includes a photo of Brian Mitchell Mendell, the smiling young man described in his biography as frustrated by addiction treatment and the effect of the disease on those around him.
Gary Mendell related the weight of that shame to the audience in the small, hot meeting room in New London that serves as the only standalone HIV/AIDS service center in southeastern Connecticut. He described a talk he had with his son four months before Brian died on Oct. 20, 2011.
“We were talking that night on the back porch, his last night ever home,” Gary Mendell said. “The conversation turned to addiction. It turned to stigma, shame. He said ‘dad, a little over 300 years ago, they used to burn women at the stake in Salem, Mass., because they thought women were witches. Then they learned they weren’t and they stopped. Someday people will realize I just have a disease.’”
Gary Mendell paused to better speak through the tears as he thanked Malloy, his administration, and state legislators for the latest in a series of laws addressing the heroin epidemic in the state.
“They have granted Brian’s wish. They recognized — the governor recognizes — addiction is a disease. This bill signifies it. This bill will save many lives, protect many families from being shattered.”
Public Act 15-198, An Act Concerning Substance Abuse and Opioid Overdose Prevention, makes the overdose antidote, nalaxone hydrochloride, available by prescription at licensed pharmacies. That means anyone who is concerned about the overdose risk of a loved one can carry the antidote and use it on that person, if necessary, to immediately reverse the effects of opiate-based narcotics.
Previous legislation already granted civil and criminal immunity to those who administer the drug “in good faith” and with “reasonable care.”
Malloy said he came to New London for a ceremonial signing of the new bill because of the way in which the region— in both its urban and rural areas — is struggling with heroin overdoses. He said the Western portion of the state shares similar characteristics.
Dora B. Scriro, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, said expanding access to naloxone is a significant step forward. “This really matters because family and friends are on the front lines of first responders, and now the antidote will be more widely available to them,” she said.
The new law also addresses one of the root causes of the heroin epidemic across the country: the overprescription of painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine. It requires health practitioners who are prescribing in excess of a 72-hour supply to check the patient’s history to see if he or she has received the opiates from other prescribers.
Malloy said extended prescription of the addictive painkillers should be approached with caution. “Listen, you’re a dentist and you pull a tooth, you shouldn’t be giving a 30-day supply of opioid,” he said.
According to Malloy, the new law is necessary to change the psychology of treating pain.
“Quite frankly, if it ends up being a little bit more expensive medically, because people have to return to the doctor to get that prescription, I think that’s an error on the right side as opposed to overprescribing,” he said. “Some number of people getting that 30-day prescription are going to become addicted. We want to change that dynamic. Simple as that.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a four-fold increase in opioid analgesic sales between 1999 and 2010.
But experts say prescriptions can be hard to get once patients become addicted — and they’re expensive. Heroin is often more readily available and less costly.
From 2001 to 2013, there was a five-fold increase in the total number of heroin overdoses, according to the CDC.
“We’re getting them hooked and then we’re pretending we should be surprised when they go and find a cheaper alternative,” Malloy said.
Statistics from the chief medical examiner’s office released in January reveal 307 fatal overdoses in 2014 involving opioids, including heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone. Of those deaths, 273 involved heroin. Deaths in which heroin played a part have increased 57 percent since 2012.
Griswold First Selectman Kevin Skulczyck was in New London to applaud the latest steps in fighting the heroin epidemic. His town, which includes the one-square-mile borough of Jewett City, has experienced heightened notoriety as state troopers have responded to a disproportionately high number of heroin overdoses compared to other rural communities. He said a coalition of residents, local officials, members of law enforcement, educators, and businessmen have joined forces to address the problem.
Skulczyck wore a black band around his wrist bearing the name of one of the town’s residents who passed away earlier this year of a drug overdose. “I watched him grow up. I watched him play sports. I coached him,” Skulczyck said. “When you see that happen, it can be anybody. It can be anywhere. Then you start opening your eyes.”
Last year’s legislation to grant civil and criminal liability protection to those who administer naloxone in good faith opened the door for all first responders, not just paramedics, to administer the antidote. By the end of October, the same month the law went into effect, all Connecticut State Police troopers were carrying naloxone kits.
The first trooper to revive an overdose victim with naloxone did so in Griswold on Oct. 29.
Naloxone has been used 36 times statewide since then, according to Trooper Kelly Grant, a state police spokeswoman. Of those, 34 of the overdose victims survived.
State police said almost a third of all the cases occurred in Griswold.
Commissioner Schriro credited Dr. Kathleen Maurer, director of health services at the Department of Correction, with making it possible to equip state troopers with the life-saving medication.
But Maurer, who said she writes the prescriptions for the troopers’ naloxone supply, said the law up until now did not provide her with civil and criminal immunity for doing her job.
“What the new law does is protects me from liability,” Maurer said.
The new language strikes the clause that said immunity only applies if prescribers act with “reasonable care.” It also clarifies that licensed health care professionals may prescribe, dispense, or administer naloxone “to any individual.”
Malloy said he is planning more legislation to prevent overdoses from heroin and prescription painkillers. He described his process as meting out change in small doses so it’s easier for lawmakers to take.
This year’s legislation passed both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously.
“One of the things about being governor — and being this particular governor — is I don’t stop. So I do some things one year that I think I can get and I’m back at it next year,” he said.