Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice says government must funnel more resources toward the treatment of heroin addiction, as Long Island -- and the country as whole -- experiences a soaring number of fatal overdoses.
"We've seen an enormous increase in heroin addiction," Rice said during an interview on CNN Wednesday morning. "We have to be able to put more resources toward the treatment of this disease and be willing to call it what it is."
She added: "When are we going to put our money where our mouth is and see these addictions are diseases? And like any other disease people suffer from, we have to be willing to get people the treatment they need."
Heroin's toll on Long Island is climbing, with hundreds of deaths over two years, an increase in nonfatal overdoses and evidence of a younger clientele, according to public officials, experts and statistics. The drug killed a record 121 people in Nassau and Suffolk in 2012 and at least 120 last year -- the two highest totals ever recorded on Long Island, data shows.
"She's spot-on in calling for better access to treatment because too many young people looking for help are being ushered out of emergency rooms and being denied insurance coverage for rehab only to wind up in the Nassau County jail or dead of an overdose," said Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Five recent heroin overdose deaths in Nassau County have been linked to drugs that contained the powerful painkiller fentanyl -- the same additive responsible for dozens of recent overdose deaths in Pennsylvania and Maryland -- and authorities fear more deaths as fentanyl-laced heroin make their way through the region.
The fatal and nonfatal heroin overdoses reflect a nationwide trend toward more use of the drug and more deaths as opioid pain pills -- which offer a similar high -- become harder to obtain amid increased regulations and a dwindling street supply, officials said.
"They offer the same high and [heroin] is easier to get and it's cheaper," Rice said.
Rice said actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's death shows that heroin knows no socio-economic boundaries and "crosses all social, gender" and racial lines.
Rice said her office tries to take as many heroin dealers as possible off the streets, but that enforcement can only do so much.
"What we really need to do is bring these kinds of addictions out of the shadows," she said.