Let’s turn the tide on opioid misuse

When Annette Escalante learned she was pregnant in 1985, she had been battling the disease of substance use disorder for much of her adult life. Annette’s opioid addiction had grown so strong that it was straining her relationships with her family, affecting her ability to secure safe, reliable housing, and had landed her in state prison a number of times as she sought ways to support her addiction.

But when Annette learned that she was pregnant, everything changed. Her pregnancy brought a new sense of clarity and urgency to her plight. Yet when Annette sought help, she discovered there were few resources to support her and her unborn child.

Despite the odds stacked against her, Annette managed to break the cycle of addiction and raised her child in a healthy, stable environment. Since earning her master’s in social work, Annette has become a true champion in the treatment community, most notably through the founding of the Cynthia Day Family Center at Keystone Hall, a unique program that supports mothers in recovery.

I had the privilege of meeting Annette and learning her story during a recent visit to Keystone Hall in Nashua, where Annette now serves as vice president. Though Annette faced these obstacles over 20 years ago, her experience remains all too common for Granite Staters. This year, hospitals in the state have reported that as many as 1 in every 10 babies are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), due to opioid exposure while in the womb.

What’s more, we are experiencing an unprecedented number of drug deaths in our communities.

We have lost more than 1,000 treatment beds over the last 25 years, yet have nearly the highest rate of addiction in the country. These realties have created a perfect storm that is causing the heroin epidemic to grow drastically.

As a result, New Hampshire has moved from 24th to third in the nation for drug deaths per capita over the past four years. We are in the midst of a massive public health and public safety crisis.

I have spent the past year and a half traveling around the state meeting with stakeholders to formulate a comprehensive plan to overcome the opioid epidemic. I have had the opportunity to learn from community members about the best practices that we need to embrace in order to put an end to the epidemic.

I have been able to use the stories, anecdotes, and firsthand experiences I’ve gathered while traveling the state to raise awareness about this issue in Washington – and to bring many of my colleagues on board to join the fight.

I was proud to co-found the Bipartisan Task Force to Combat the Heroin Epidemic, which joins members from both sides of the aisle to tackle this challenge head on. As this crisis has spread across the country, affecting states from New Hampshire to California, we now have over 80 members. In April, we brought the task force to New Hampshire to hear directly from Granite Staters about what needs to be done on the federal level to support our stakeholders’ efforts at home.

We are making progress. In April, the Senate voted 94-1 to pass the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a critical piece of legislation to fund local efforts to stem the crisis. I have also met with insurance providers to urge better, more comprehensive coverage for individuals in need of treatment options.

What’s more, we’ve started a nationwide conversation on how prescription drugs are spurring this crisis. Unbelievably, four of every five heroin users began on their path to addiction by first misusing prescription drugs. The transition from prescription drugs to cheaper, stronger heroin is one that has affected individuals at all levels of our society, including business owners, nurses, athletes and beyond.

I’m proud to announce that our task force recently introduced a legislative agenda – a bipartisan package of 15 bills – that will take an aggressive, multi-faceted approach to addressing the crisis. These bills include measures to reform opioid prescribing practices, improve access to treatment, increase resources for law enforcement, and provide alternatives to incarceration for individuals struggling to beat addiction.

Though we are facing an uphill battle, we are blessed in New Hampshire to have leaders like Annette, and so many others, who are committed to strengthening our communities. Because of her leadership, and the leadership of so many others across the state, I’m able to bring their stories to Congress to help fight the epidemic on the federal level.

I am confident that if we all commit to addressing the opioid epidemic with the same resolve as Annette and the hundreds of other stakeholders who are dedicated to curbing this crisis, we will be able to prevent the epidemic from taking a further toll on our loved ones and communities. 

Democrat Annie Kuster represents New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District.

Categories: Opinion