New York has weathered many challenges over the past few decades—a bad economy, crime and school segregation (just to name a few)—but the state can’t seem to escape the long, desperate shadow of addiction. According to Governor Andrew Cuomo, opioid addiction has devastated the state’s residents like nothing before—and that’s saying something. “We’ve gone through heroin in the 70s, we went through cocaine and crack in the 80s and the 90s. But I think this is worse than then,” the New York Observer quoted Cuomo in a recent article. It’s a sobering commentary on not only the state’s struggles with addiction but also the state of addiction everywhere.
It Knows No Bounds
Opioid addiction, largely fueled by prescription painkiller abuse, is a national health crisis. The CDC reports that the number of Americans who died of opioid overdoses has quadrupled since 1999. Not coincidentally, the agency says the number of prescription opioids quadrupled during that same time, too. From 2000 to 2014, nearly 500,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, which puts the number at nearly 80 Americans who die every day. As Cuomo lamented, opioid addiction—chiefly, heroin—is an epidemic that knows no bounds: “This isn’t an inner-city drug crisis, this is not a poor person crisis, this is not a young person crisis, this is not a downstate crisis,” he said in the Observer. “It’s all across the state. It’s in rural areas, it’s in upstate areas, it’s in wealthy areas.”
Even worse, data proves the heroin epidemic in New York is more dire than most other states. In 2014, the state nearly led the rest of the nation in increased overdose deaths. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut notched higher increases in heroin and prescription painkiller deaths, respectively. In his office’s new report, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli claimed that while officials have taken some tentative steps toward reducing heroin abuse, they still have a long way to go. “The rising death toll from heroin in the state reflects an increase in the estimated past-year use of the drug, including a sharp jump in average annual use during the two-year period from 2013 through 2014,” DiNapoli wrote. “Heroin use in New York during that period exceeded the national rate by nearly 50 percent.”
“Like Fire Through Dry Grass”
Overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in New York. The state saw 825 overdose-related deaths in 2014, according to the Comptroller report—a 24% increase in just one single year. It’s a sobering statistic that the New York Patch says “represents a jump of 159 deaths” and “is nearly 25 times the number recorded in New York 10 years earlier.” The numbers are discouraging and they simply put New York’s problems with addiction into context. “The increase in the number of deaths is staggering,” Gov. Cuomo said of heroin’s stranglehold on his state. “This is a drug that is increasing like fire through dry grass. There are a number of reasons why, but that doesn’t change the end result: that we have a public health crisis on our hands, and it’s only getting worse.”
When it comes to how heroin has so swiftly—and indiscriminately—moved through New York’s neighborhoods, all fingers point to the usual suspects. DiNapoli noted that alcohol and prescription drug abuse are the primary gateways to heroin. He also singled out “overlapping prescriptions from multiple providers and pharmacies” as a major reason. To that end, Gov. Cuomo has been aggressive in ending prescription abuse, starting with his 2012 I-STOP legislation. The law, which changed how prescriptions are logged and tracked statewide, “led to a 90 percent decrease in the number of ‘doctor shoppers’ or patients who visit multiple prescribers and pharmacies to obtain controlled substances within a three-month time period.”
What’s Next for New York?
Gov. Cuomo also addressed his state’s crisis earlier in the year by assembling a heroin task force, comprised of “experts in healthcare, drug policy, advocacy, education, and parents and New Yorkers in recovery.” The group was charged with forming an action plan that, in recent weeks, has been coming together to discuss next steps. Cuomo has been tenacious in fighting heroin abuse for years. In addition to I-STOP and signing Combat Heroin legislation, he’s expanded statewide treatment services and introduced a number of public awareness campaigns about opioid abuse.
“Compared to national averages, New Yorkers are significantly more likely to be admitted to treatment,” DiNapoli said in his report’s executive summary. He cited several factors, including the state’s “higher-than-average rate of health insurance coverage” and its “longstanding efforts to promote access to treatment.” To its credit, New York doesn’t seem satisfied to sit on the sidelines during the heroin epidemic—it seems singularly determined to double down on getting results. Cuomo’s task force also continues to brainstorm ideas, ranging from “ending roadblocks erected by insurers that can [delay the time]before an addicted person is allowed to start treatment” to decreasing opioid prescriptions from 30 days down to seven.
DiNapoli pointed toward “new investments of State resources [to]further expand options for treatment, recovery, prevention and other services.” These options include new state-funded treatment centers, more residential treatment beds, better education programs, and a wider availability of anti-overdose meds like naloxone. While New York doesn’t stand alone in the drug crisis, it certainly seems to be to standing apart in its dedication to saving the lives of its addicts.
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