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State learns more in fight against heroin epidemic at panel of legislators in Watertown

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A father spends $400,000 trying to help his son kick the habit. A woman gives her boyfriend CPR five times before he finally dies of an overdose. A mother changes her life plans to save a son curled up in an unfinished basement.

These are the stories of heroin addiction.

“He begged me and begged me to get him help,” said an Oswego County woman, speaking of her boyfriend while testifying before state legislators Friday in Watertown. “He told me he felt like the devil was inside of him and he could not get him out.” Six days later he was dead.

Lawmakers in Albany are grappling with an epidemic that has arisen, seemingly overnight, in the small towns and communities throughout New York and in the north country — a surge in heroin and opioid addiction.

But the problem — which has touched doctors, nurses, police officers, families, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, users and recovering addicts — has no simple solution. Those testifying before the panel identified several weak links in the systems that deal with the issue.

Concerns about the cost of treatment and the inadequacy of insurance options, and a debate about crime and punishment for those who buy and sell drugs, highlighted the discussion. The session was punctuated by emotional testimony from family members affected by the drug’s emergence on a market little equipped to deal with its growing popularity.

The panel was anchored by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and included Assemblymen Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski.

“It’s a multifaceted problem without a single answer,” Jefferson County District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert said. Addicts will do anything — lie, steal, prostitute themselves — to get their fix, she said.

The number of drug arrests involving heroin in Jefferson County as a percentage of the Metro-Jefferson Drug Task Force’s total arrests has increased from 10 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2013 and is on track to surpass that number this year, Ms. Intschert said.

Detective Sean O’Brien of the St. Lawrence County Drug Task Force told the panel that heroin arrests in his county increased by 280 percent in 2013 over the previous year and were on track to increase 120 percent this year.

But reducing the supply and demand and providing treatment are more difficult than it seems. Distinguishing between those who are addicted to the substances and those who profit from their need takes training and experience, according to Ms. Intschert. The treatment is expensive and not always covered by insurance.

“The insurance company issue is bigger than the heroin problem because you can’t get anybody any help,” said Adam Bullock, director of behavioral health services at Canton-Potsdam Hospital.

Mr. Bullock and others discussed the fights they’ve had with insurance companies while negotiating a maze of regulations to get their patients and family members the help they need.

And time is of the essence, according to Dr. Charles J. Moehs. He is the only primary care physician in Watertown who prescribes suboxone, a drug used to treat opioid dependence.

“We should have a detox program in Watertown,” Dr. Moehs said. People who want to get off the drug “need to do it when they’re ready or other influences will intervene.”

Those who wish to kick the drug must travel to Syracuse or Canton-Potsdam to find a treatment center, Dr. Moehs said. “They should not be put in jail and forced to undergo rapid detox in a jail cell. That’s inhumane,” he said.

The forum, which was held at the Dulles State Office Building, is one of 13 being held around the state as the Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction seeks public input on how best to combat the rise in heroin abuse.

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