Amid the opioid overdose epidemic happening across the nation, officials from 26 of Rhode Island’s cities and towns converged in Warwick on Wednesday morning to discuss solutions to the problem.
The event, which comes amidst a lawsuit from those cities and towns, including Warwick and Cranston, against drug companies they say are fueling the epidemic, was organized by the Substance Use and Mental Health Leadership Council of Rhode Island, which is a group focusing on addiction prevention in the state.
Providence-based lawyer Eva-Marie Mancuso, who is representing the municipalities in the lawsuit against pharmacy companies, said in a statement that the lawsuit aims at “holding the powerful pharmaceutical industry accountable” for their part in the epidemic.
The drug distributors being sued are McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen Drug. There are also five manufacturers they are suing, including Perdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, and Allergan, Activis and Watson Pharmaceuticals.
Meanwhile, the municipalities on Wednesday heard from Department of Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, Lietenant Governor Dan McKee, Department of Behavioral Healthcare Director Rebecca Boss, Vice President of CVS Professional Services Thomas Davis and Erin Gilliat, a representative from the Rhode Island alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs.
McKee, who helped organized the meeting, said that there was a 90 percent increase in opioid overdoses from 2011 to 2016, when deaths peaked at 336. He said that the focus going forward is to reduce that number through prevention and recovery tactics.
Boss added that, although opioid deaths decreased slightly from last year, fentanyl deaths are still on the rise year over year and “everybody knows there’s an epidemic going on.” She said that this epidemic is going on in all 39 towns and cities in Rhode Island.
Boss said that the state’s efforts have been on making treatment available for when people overdose. This treatment, usually of Naloxone (known colloquially as Narcan), can be done through an injection or, more commonly, a nasal treatment, she said.
She also said there are centers for people who are abusing drugs to go for treatment and recovery, where they can work with trained specialists to try to stop using the drugs or can find public housing, employment, or education opportunities for themselves. Examples of these types of centers include Thundermist Health Center in West Warwick, Bridgemark in Warwick and Butler Hospital and the Providence Center in Providence.
Alexander-Scott said that the Department of Health (DOH) is focusing on getting Naloxone into popular places like supermarkets, malls, or movie theatres and training people to use the treatment on individuals who are experiencing overdoses. The aforementioned Thundermist recently trained all of its employees in the administering of Narcan, the first healthcare facility to do so in the state.
“Just like people know CPR, you should know how to administer Naloxone,” she said.
She added that the DOH awards $5,000 grants to towns to use for community outreach and $4,900 grants to local nonprofits who are working to support anti-opioid projects that are “data-driven.”
Davis said that CVS has a law enforcement grant program as well that provides drug collection bins to local police departments for free. These bins, according to their website, are placed in a secure area, monitored by the police and offer people a way to dispose of unwanted medications, including controlled substances, that could either fall into the hands of addicts of contaminate water supplies. He said that when people are taking pain medication, they should not leave excess medication around their house that others could have access to.
Gilliat was there to represent the Boys and Girls Clubs of the state, which she said services around 28,000 kids. She said that their main focus in regards to the opioid epidemic is prevention. She said that their employees serve as role models for the kids, some of whom are teenagers, who can talk with them about things they may not be comfortable telling their parents. She added that the clubs have programs separating boys and girls to talk with their staff about everything from sexual activity to drug and alcohol use.
“Many kids don’t want to go down a bad path,” she said, “but what might happen if a 15-year-old is at a party on a Friday night and the girl they have a crush on offers them something they know they shouldn’t be doing?”
She said that the clubs act as a safe space for them to discuss these things.
McKee said that the focus of this first meeting, and the meetings in the future, would be “to make significant progress [on the opioid epidemic] over the next few years to make Rhode Island a national leader."