Despite hundreds of conferences, roundtables and summits, Long Island’s heroin crisis has worsened. With each passing day, more deaths, more arrests, and more families, schools and communities torn apart.
Because many school districts are scaling back, rather than expanding substance-abuse prevention programs. Because weary, frightened families with struggling loved ones still don’t know how to effectively intervene. Because chronically underfunded mental health clinics are disappearing and some social services agencies, like FEGS Health and Human Services are closing. Because detox units are bursting at the seams and young overdose victims are allowed to simply walk out of emergency rooms an hour after being helped with Narcan.
More kids are dying than ever before because heroin can be delivered to your home in 10 minutes, but getting an appointment at an addiction treatment center can take 10 days and getting insurance companies to approve in-patient stays can take a lifetime. Regulatory and financial barriers to Suboxone and Vivitrol — medications used to treat opioid addiction — persist while more than 200 people on Suffolk County’s methadone waiting list wait for help.
Prenatal care providers complain that there are few places to refer pregnant or parenting women for treatment. Judges are reluctantly funneling young people into jail cells because there simply aren’t enough residential placements. And youth services that reduce the risk factors associated with addiction are perennially on the chopping block thanks to Nassau’s never-ending fiscal crisis and some misplaced priorities.
Even when young people manage to turn a corner, Long Island remains one of the few major metropolitan areas without a recovery center, a recovery high school or a sober college and many of our region’s so-called “sober homes” are unregulated and unsafe.
But treatment experts, community advocates, impacted families and people in recovery have said this for more than a decade. We’ve repeatedly detailed the solutions, written reports, spoken at meetings, and testified at public hearings. It’s not that we’ve been ignored or that nothing’s happened. It’s that a relentless and progressive brain disease like addiction requires a massive, sustained and multifaceted response. Our suburban denial gave heroin a running head start and now we want to sit around and talk some more?
At countless public meetings and news conferences, at least one public official correctly observes that “we can’t arrest our way out of this crisis.” But that’s exactly what we seem to be trying to do. We can do better. We can do better and we must go beyond summits and rallies like the one being hosted Thursday in Nassau County.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone should declare a public health emergency and launch a “Manhattan Project” where each county puts up $10 million (a fraction of what we spend on heroin’s collateral damage with no return on investment) and solicits top-flight proposals from organizations that can enhance or even revolutionize prevention, family counseling, addiction treatment and recovery support in our region. Appoint one person in each county to lead the effort with support from a regional review panel, make awards quickly with minimal start-up time and pay for performance.
New York State, flush with more than $5 billion in cash from bank settlements, should match that investment to put evidence-based prevention programs in every classroom, boost children’s mental health services, ensure access to high-quality addiction treatment on demand, and make our neighborhoods welcoming and safe places for young people who have found a path to recovery. Then arm those young people with the tools they need to engage others.
That’s how you end epidemics.
Jeffrey L. Reynolds is president and chief executive at Family and Children’s Association.