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Nassau substance abuse hotline still a work in progress

Plans for a Nassau County substance abuse hotline, and a smartphone app  to treatment and recovery resources, have stalled, nearly a year after legislators ordered them, Republican county lawmakers said.

 Officials from the administration of Democratic County Executive Laura Curran say, however, that the app launch is imminent and that more drug counselors are staffing  the existing catchall crisis center hotline.

 The county was supposed to launch the smartphone app 60 days after the legislature required its production, according to the bill passed Aug. 6, 2018. Administration officials say the app is to be released in a few weeks.

Also, the measure required Nassau to establish a 24-hour substance abuse hotline to be staffed with trained addiction specialists. County officials said they would solicit bids for a vendor in the coming weeks, but noted that the existing crisis center hotline had trained substance abuse counselors available. County workers take the calls on workdays and off-hour callers are handled by the Bellmore-based Long Island Crisis Center 24/7.

The county was supposed to solicit bids to operate the substance abuse hotline by Aug. 31, 2018, under the law, and the hotline was to be up and running within 60 days of a contract award.

The county also was required to advertise the multiple hotlines on public signs in large, bold lettering within 120 days of the bill's passage.

Legis. Rose Marie Walker (R-Hicksville), chairwoman of the health and social services committee, said she was concerned about the time lag. "It was last August, and here we are in July and haven’t moved forward with it." 

Legis. C. William Gaylor III (R-Lynbrook) wrote in a July 2 letter to Curran, “The fact that these resources are not operational is unacceptable.”

But Carolyn McCummings, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, said, “We’ve always had a hotline available 24 hours, 7 days a week for the residents." The Nassau County Behavioral Health Awareness Campaign hotline, 516-227-TALK, handles a wide range of crises, including suicide prevention.

It takes a long time to prepare a request for proposals package, McCummings said. “There’s no way that can be done in 60 days,” she said. "It takes just six months alone to go through all the processes that the county requires for it to be posted."

Meanwhile, the county increased its contract with the Long Island Crisis Center by $70,000 to boost training and hiring for substance abuse counselors, McCummings said. 

Legis. Joshua Lafazan, a Woodbury independent who caucuses with Democrats and sponsored the hotline and app bills, said he had envisioned a separate number for the substance abuse line. The experts on the other line should be knowledgeable about treatment providers, addiction and insurance. Lafazan said a crisis intervention line could refer to suicide and he wanted "a stand-alone number where we could mark it solely related to addiction."

But McCummings said callers would be likely to continue to use the 227-TALK number, and could be transferred to a substance abuse specialist. “We don't want to have two separate hotlines, because the residents get confused,” she said.

That number “has always been a behavioral and substance abuse hotline," she said.

Lafazan said if the county took that route, certified drug counselors must be on hand and be able to text with callers.

Al Perez, deputy commissioner for Information Technology, said the app was in the "final phase of testing." He said developers needed time to make sure the app was secure and that medical information was written accurately.

“We’d love to do things much, much faster, but we have to make sure it's absolutely right,” Perez said.

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