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Tough heroin fight must be unstopping

Heroin on display at the Suffolk County district

Heroin on display at the Suffolk County district attorney's office in Hauppauge on Aug.12, 2014, where District Attorney Thomas Spota detailed the arrest of nearly two dozen individuals for allegedly selling heroin and cocaine throughout Suffolk County. Credit: James Carbone

Hope was in the air last spring as a State Senate task force traveled New York to understand the surge in heroin and opioid abuse, listening to more than 200 witnesses: parents who have lost kids to overdoses, law enforcement officials, medical professionals and former addicts.

The tour produced 25 bills -- 11 of which the State Legislature passed in June. The laws added cops to the narcotics beat, put the antidote Narcan into more hands and included warnings at freshmen orientations on SUNY and CUNY campuses. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bills into law, calling Long Island "one of the ground zeros for the heroin epidemic."

Long Islanders thought that by now they might have begun removing that grim label -- but today the deaths keep coming. Since last summer, a 20-year-old in a Commack park overdosed even as his friends feared calling 911, unaware that they would have had legal immunity under New York's Good Samaritan law. A 14-year-old died in Lindenhurst, and so did another Suffolk County teenager whose mother committed suicide a few days afterward.

Maureen L. Rossi reports these tragedies from her post as a founder of one of the nearly three dozen anti-drug groups on Long Island, Kings Park in the kNOw. She's impatient, but optimistic. Heroin abuse, she says, "will probably be reaching a maximum soon." Heroin killed a record-high 144 people on Long Island in 2013.

But it's maddening that on many fronts, the implementation of the anti-heroin effort is just beginning. We have to give it time to work -- and keep building on it. In the legislative session that begins in January, Albany legislators must push for the 14 bills that failed to pass before. And law enforcement must get this peril off our streets.

It's just not acceptable that someone could make one wrong decision, popping a pill or snorting a powder, and acquire an addiction. It isn't what our community stands for, when a person at this fragile stage of life, taking steps toward adulthood in a depressing economy, could be fooled into seeing happiness in a chemical compound. The writer Maia Szalavitz says of her first heroin experience, "Suddenly every atom of my being felt nurtured."

It may be alluring, but it's a false refuge.

Five years ago, the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence was serving just under 100 families a month. By this past March, that number had swelled to 850 families, and 80 percent of the increase was due to opioid and heroin addiction.

The most important of New York's new laws, one that governs the insurance process, takes effect in April. Insurance companies were using "artificial rules" to deny care, says Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), such as requiring 30 days of outpatient treatment before admitting someone as an inpatient. Or insurers were arguing over whether an addiction was primarily to drugs or alcohol -- treatment funded by different state agencies.

The new law requires speedier admissions, quick appeals and care during the appeals process. It will be important to monitor whether insurers comply, Hannon says, adding that the companies' medical directors seem open to the changes.

Still needed is a law giving medical professionals, not insurance companies, the power to determine the length of treatment. And too little thought or resources are given to what happens to people after they're released, says Suffolk County Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who chairs a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force launched in January.

With so many eyes on this drug problem, there's reason for hope. But hope alone won't do.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.