HARTFORD, CT – When Dr. Daren Anderson began practicing medicine in the late 1990s not many doctors had heard about the opioid crisis.
“We were prescribing with the best of intentions,” Anderson, who is now vice president and chief quality officer for the Community Health Center, said. Anderson is also the director of the Weitzman Institute, which is the research arm of the Community Health Center.
“This was right at the beginning of an emerging epidemic,” Anderson told fellow doctors, health care specialists, politicians and others at a Hartford Business Journal Opioid Forum Wednesday.
Anderson said doctors like himself had no idea 20 years ago, when the roots of the opioid crisis started, that prescribing drugs such as Percocet and OxyContin was fueling the problem.
“We now know that opioids if used at all, should be used sparingly,” Anderson told his nodding (in agreement) audience.
Anderson was one of a series of speakers at the forum held at the Infinity Music Hall. Among the other speakers was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Malloy told the audience that he starts his morning looking at the obituary section of the morning paper, “purposely looking for people under the age of 40 who have died at home.”
He said inevitably he sees obits of young people – each and every day and from every town in the state.
“This is bigger than we think,” Malloy said, who added he doesn’t think the media “has done a good job covering this issue.” If they had, the governor said, “more people would be up in arms over it.”
Malloy added the spike in fentanyl related deaths has been alarming. He said drugs being sold on the streets are so powerful these days that it’s like “buying a lottery ticket to be poisoned to death.”
Opioids – both prescription and illicit – are the main driver of drug overdose deaths nationwide and in Connecticut.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999.
The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is projecting that more than 1,000 people will die of opioid-related overdoses in Connecticut in 2017.
Commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon said the number of deaths “is heartbreaking and it’s heartbreaking to see these numbers increase.”
What is scary about the fact that three people per day, on average, are dying in Connecticut from drug overdoses is that “we are a small state,” Pat Rehmer, senior vice president of Behavioral Health for Hartford HealthCare, said.
Rehmer, who was the keynote speaker at the forum, said that proportionately Connecticut’s drug death rate is higher than other states due to Connecticut’s smaller population.
Rehmer, who was previously the state’s commissioner of mental health and addiction services, said there are proactive measures that health care professionals – and – families can take to help stem the surge in deaths.
She said statistics show that if people refrain from using substances, including tobacco, before they reach age 21, “there is a 95 percent chance they will avoid addiction.”
Rehmer added that if it was up to her every single home would have Narcan in it, the opioid reversal drug. She said having Narcan in the house, in her opinion, should be as mainstream as having a bottle of aspirin in the house.
Lastly, she told the audience, “the right time to talk to kids about the dangers of drugs is elementary school.”
She said that children are overdosing at ages as young as 14 and that waiting to talk to children about the dangers of drug use could be a fatal mistake.
The audience also heard a personal story of recovery from drug addiction.
Matthew Eacott, executive vice president of Aware Recovery Care, which provides in home support for recovering drug addicts – and their families – told a moving story of his own history of addiction and how he broke free.
Eacott, who grew up in Avon, said he spent much of his college years as a drug user and dealer.
“I went to 15 different patient centers over 10-12 years,” Eacott said, “including one in Israel.”
Eacott said it wasn’t until he got the kind of in-home support that Aware Recovery provides that he was able to break the chain of going back to drugs.
He said he’s been off drugs for over five years. He added that 90 percent of the people that work at Aware are in recovery and that they now treat 450 patients in two states – Connecticut and New Hampshire.