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Opioid trial testimony: Suffolk had to develop a 'compassion fatigue' education program first responders

Jennifer Culp, the intergovernmental coordinator for the Suffolk

Jennifer Culp, the intergovernmental coordinator for the Suffolk Department of Health Services speaks at a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge. Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk police and other first responders became increasingly embittered when they were called to the same addresses over and over to save the lives of drug users who had repeatedly overdosed, a county health official testified Wednesday.

The county had to develop a "compassion fatigue" educational program to teach first responders that addiction is a complex, chronic and often lifelong disease, according to Jennifer Culp, the intergovernmental coordinator for the Suffolk Department of Health Services. The program also trained officers to identify and respond to the frustration and anger that was a byproduct of the opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives on Long Island in recent years, she said.

Cops and other first responders were frustrated by drug users who became angry when they were revived with Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses, Culp said as a witness for Nassau, Suffolk and New York State, which have sued pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors of allegedly caused the crisis. Saving the lives of the same people repeatedly took a mental toll on first responders, Culp said under direct examination by Jayne Conroy, an attorney for Suffolk.

"We were hearing from the community, from the first responders, they were responding and it was their neighbors, it was people they knew, it was someone maybe they went to high school with or someone who lives down the street," Culp testified Wednesday at Touro College in Central Islip. "It was someone’s child."

Culp testified Wednesday about the numerous programs county officials instituted to combat the opioid crisis that has devastated many Long Island families, including efforts to train doctors and dentists on how to appropriately prescribe the powerful pain mediations and how to identify potential abuse.

Other responses to the opioid crisis included the creation of the Diagnostic, Assessment and Stablization Hub (DASH), a 24-hour crisis center that helps people struggling with substance abuse issues get into treatment quickly, widespread Narcan training for first responders and community members, and prevention programs aimed at steering teens away from opioids.

Culp acknowledged that the county had never studied the causes of the opioid epidemic under cross-examination by Mike Brock, an attorney for pharmaceutical manufacturer Allergan Financial, who suggested criminals and unscrupulous doctors who wrote inappropriate prescriptions for financial gain or sexual favors are responsible for the crisis.

The counties and the state are trying to recover millions of dollars for drug treatment, recovery and prevention, and to hold the companies responsible for the death and misery created by the opioid epidemic.

The companies say they're not responsible for the epidemic and are being made scapegoats those who are, including illicit drug dealers, health regulators who encouraged opioid use and doctors who overprescribed painkillers.

Drug distribution companies Cardinal Health, Amerisource Bergen and McKesson were dismissed as defendants in the lawsuit last week after they reached an agreement to a $1.1 billion settlement with New York State, Nassau and Suffolk. The deal is part of a proposed $26 billion national settlement with manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

Allergan, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Endo International remain as defendants, along with distributor ANDA Pharmaceutical. ANDA was sued by the counties but not the state.

The trial continues Thursday at Touro College.

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