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State heroin bills stiffen criminal penalties, offers more help for addicts

(L-R) Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, Senate Republican

(L-R) Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, leave a news conference after announcing legislation to combat the rise of heroin use in the state in the Red Room at the Capitol on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY -- New York will require insurance companies to provide improved coverage for heroin addiction recovery while stiffening some criminal penalties for sale of the drug under a wide-ranging effort agreed to by state leaders Wednesday.

"Heroin abuse is a public health crisis," said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who negotiated the package of bills with legislative leaders. "The problem is growing, it's growing exponentially."

The measure is expected to be approved by the State Legislature this week and signed into law by Cuomo immediately afterward. The deal was struck in closed-door negotiations Tuesday night.

"This deadly drug has destroyed people's futures . . . and taken lives," said Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Major elements of the package of bills include requiring insurance companies to expedite any appeals of coverage and for the policy holder to continue to receive treatment while the insurance claim is appealed. Another provision raises the severity of the felony of sale of heroin to Class C, doubling the maximum sentence to 5 years.

Other measures will make it easier for families and individuals to receive treatment covered by their insurance.

The agreement calls for a new crime of "fraud and deceit related to controlled substances." It would address doctor shopping for opioids and illegal prescription drugs in which abusers attempt to buy drugs through prescriptions based on fraudulent identities.

College students and the public also will see more awareness programs to learn about the dangers of heroin abuse. In public schools, the drug awareness classes will have to be updated more frequently to reflect new threats.

"Today marks the beginning of the end of the heroin epidemic in our state," said Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore), who led statewide hearings on the issue. New Yorkers "shared their personal stories, insights and tragedies to assist us in the creation of this lifesaving legislative package."

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, called the legislation "the single most important step lawmakers have taken to address New York's opiate crisis."

Linda Ventura's 21-year-old son, Thomas, died of a heroin overdose in March 2012. The Kings Park resident has since pushed legislators to support the package as she carried her son's ashes.

"These are benefits you have in your insurance policies, but they discriminate against the disease of addiction," she said. "They should have already been paying for the care people had been paying them for. Now the law will force them."

"This is long overdue," said Jamie Bogenschutz, executive director of the YES Counseling Center in Massapequa. "We have so many people who die while waiting for this kind of care to be approved by insurers."

Senate co-leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) said the heroin crisis was created when the drug became a low-cost alternative to the abuse of prescription drugs.

"That led to an epidemic that really knows no bounds -- men, women, all age groups, all socio-economic groups," Klein said. "Today we send a very, very important message: We are not going to tolerate heroin sales in our state, we are going to crack down, but at the same time we are going to provide meaningful help for people who really need treatment."

With Kevin Deutsch

The agreement

State leaders yesterday announced agreement on a series of bills to help curb the rampant rise of heroin and other drug abuse in New York. Among the major initiatives are:

Requiring insurance companies to expedite any appeals of coverage and allow the policy holder to continue to receive treatment while the insurance claim is appealed.

Requiring insurers to cover the appropriate level of treatment for patients suffering from substance use disorders, making it easier to get inpatient treatment.

Creating a new crime, "fraud and deceit related to controlled substances," to crack down on doctor shopping for opioids and illegal prescription drugs.

Providing that young people alleged to be suffering from a substance use disorder can be assessed as part of Person In Need of Supervision (PINS) services.

Increasing the penalties for the criminal sale of a controlled substance by a pharmacist or practitioner by making the crime a Class C felony.

Developing more public awareness programs to teach about the dangers of heroin abuse.

State & Region