FULTON, NY – U.S. Congressman John Katko visited Fulton recently to address a local and nationwide epidemic, the use and abuse of heroin, opioids and synthetic drugs.
Katko, representing the 24th Congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives was joined by a panel of local leaders, experts, and personal victims to the effects of addiction.
The discussion was held at CNY Arts Center on CCC Fulton Campus and was open to the public with the intent to answer any questions from the audience together as a panel.
The event was moderated by Oswego County District Attorney, Greg Oakes.
While Katko forewarned that the following conversation would likely be troubling, he emphasized it’s also incredibly important and felt that it would be inspiring as well, to learn of all the things the people of the panel are doing throughout the Oswego County community to battle this problem.
The Congressman believes the most predominant approach for all citizens to take to combat the issue of heroin abuse in the area is to spread awareness.
“I’ve been a federal prosecutor for 20 years…. I did organized crime cases on a federal level,” said Katko. “I’ve seen every kind of drug come and go, the fads…. but I’ve never seen anything like what is going on with synthetic drugs and heroin. Bottom line is, people are dying and they’re dying in big numbers.”
Katko and the panel were sure to emphasize that heroin has no socioeconomic preference and more so, no preference at all. The face of heroin addiction can belong to anyone, even the people you would least expect, they said.
Alan Francis, Chemical Dependency Counselor for County of Oswego Council on Alcoholism and Addictions, works with a caseload of between 30 and 35 addicts that he meets with one-on-one on a daily basis.
Speaking of his clients, Francis said “Ranging in age from 17 up to 70 or 75, the face of addiction is basically the faces I’m seeing out here, it does not discriminate.”
Michael Batstone, investigator with the Oswego County Drug Task Force, reiterated that addiction can be the face of anyone, even saying that in his contact with drug abusers, they have told Batstone he would be shocked to learn of the people sitting next to them, using together, as sometimes they are people that are considered upstanding citizens in the community.
Although, as their need grows with more frequent use and the price remains expensive to obtain, Batstone does note that often people are left to steal or even prostitute as their only recourse to afford their need. “And these are good people, they’re family. They’re our family,” he said.
Fulton City Assistant Fire Chief David Eiffe added some specific local data in regards to who they find are using most frequently in their response calls.
Eiffe said the average age for people in the city of Fulton that first responders need to give Narcan to is 35-years-old. He also shed some light on the reality of drug addiction’s lack of discrimination in telling that a lieutenant of the Syracuse City Fire Department recently passed away from a heroin overdose.
“So, it is real, it affects everybody, including first responders,” he said.
The consensus among the panel was that there should be no exceptions to who addiction can affect next. “This crosses all socioeconomic lives, it is not your typical drug that’s centered in one area,” said Katko.
With his position in United States Congress, Representative Katko is taking steps to push legislation to help the battle against drug abuse on a national level.
Together with Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. Katko has supported a bill to require the Center of Disease Control and Prevention to provide guidelines for doctors in prescribing opioids.
“We are trying to attack this from multiple fronts. She’s a democrat, I’m a republican… We are still appearing together because we think it’s so important,” Katko said. “If your kid goes and gets a wisdom tooth out, he shouldn’t be getting a 30 day supply of Oxycontin. That’s insane. So that’s what this bill is going to do, it’s going to fix that.”
The Congressman also brought awareness to the Treat Act, currently making it’s way through Congress.
He explained that a doctor is limited to the number of patients he can treat at any one time for heroin or opioid abuse. In the doctor’s first year, it is 30 patients. After that, it’s 100 patients.
“We need to uncap that,” he said. “This also allows nurse practitioners and physicians assistants to do it as well. So, that will help expand the network for Suboxone and the other drugs that help, the heroin antidotes.”
Panel members Gina Atkins, Associate Administrator for Behavioral Services at Oswego Health and Penny Morley, Prevention Services Director at Farnham Family Services & Member of the Coalition to Combat Substance Abuse addressed their push for more Suboxone ad Methadone treatment within Oswego County.
“What we really need in this county is a Methadone/Suboxone clinic because we will prevent as much as we can right now, but we are already at that problem. We already have a huge addiction problem,” said Atkins. “This (waiting) list is growing, and people are dying, too many people are dying… The sooner, the better for Oswego County.”
Morley said there are three physicians in Oswego County that are able to supply Suboxone and they are each capped at treating 100 patients, totaling 300 patients that can receive help at one time in Oswego County. After those spots are filled, anyone seeking Suboxone treatment must search for assistance outside of Oswego County.
Crouse Hospital of Syracuse covers 17 counties to provide Suboxone on a daily basis for addicts in need.
With a total of 2,000 admissions in Crouse’s chemical dependency treatment center last year, 52% of them were for opioid abuse, according to Monika Taylor, director of Chemical Dependency Treatment Services for Crouse Hospital.
Although they serve more than 600 people daily and have recently had one other physician become a Methadone program provider, the need is still greater than the ability to serve those in need of treatment.
“Think about it, if you have to go on a daily basis from 17 counties to get Suboxone, how does that work? It doesn’t make sense. That’s why this Treat Act will be great because people can go to their local doctors. It’s a start, it may not be as perfect as a clinic, it could really be a big help,” said Katko.
Morley at Farnham and Atkins at Oswego Health said they are working together with hopes to bring a Suboxone/Methadone clinic to Oswego County.
Katko also noted the lack of treatment availability specific to the area and although applauding the chemical dependency treatment center at Crouse Hospital in its service of more than 600 people daily, he referenced the more than 500 people still on a waiting list that are in need of services.
“Many of those people never get to the treatment because they don’t make it, they die. And it’s not because of Crouse, they’re doing all the can,” he said. “But those five or six hundred people that are waiting, we’ve got to do something about that.”
Katko also referenced a bill he put forth in Congress as a response to synthetic drugs.
He explained, you can order substances that mimic the effects of controlled substances such as marijuana and cocaine, etc. They are sold in regular markets, and are mainly coming from China, they are called synthetic drugs.
“Since it’s chemical composition is different than controlled substances, it’s technically not illegal,” he said. To make it illegal, you’d have to get the chemical composition and bring it to the DEA who has to identify it, agree that it mimics the effect of a controlled substance and put out a drug analogue statute.
This is typically a two year process, he said. To combat this, he introduced a bill to Congress to speed up this process, to implement a board that is limber and quick, to complete the process in about a month’s time.
Teresa Woolson, president of the VOW Foundation and member of the Coalition to Combat Substance Abuse, lost her 19-year-old son (Victor O. Woolson) in 2012 when he died from synthetic drug use.
“I didn’t know anything about synthetic drugs, unfortunately I know a lot about them now,” she said.
“A tireless advocate,” Katko applauded Woolson for making good on a tragedy and her many efforts to bring change.
“So it’s a heroin problem, it’s an opioid problem, it’s a synthetic drug problem. And we are on it,” he said.
Director of Public Health for Oswego County Health Department, Jiancheng Huang believes the first step is education. To educate our youth to prevent them from becoming future addicts, he said.
Superintendent of Schools for the Fulton City School District, William Lynch said the turn out to the night’s event only points out the gravity of the issue at hand and he is all too aware of the impact this epidemic has on students, families and the community.
Lynch made available the variety of ways the city’s school system is aiming to combat this issue as well, including providing the material as part of the health curriculum, the DARE Program in fifth grade with the Fulton Police Department, partnerships with community agencies including a Farnham counselor in the High School, school based mental health clinics at each school, and social workers as school counselors in addition to guidance counselors.
The emphasis for students is placed more so on decision making and foreseeing the consequences of their actions.
“There’s a lot that we’re trying to do, there’s a lot more that we need to do,” he said.
Morley added that the All-Stars Program, a powerful ten-week program with middle school students aimed to develop how they envision their future and how drugs and alcohol would influence that. This program has since been expanded across the county, but started at Fulton.
The Strengthening Families Program, a very successful DVD Program will also be expanding this summer thanks to a successful start at Fulton community schools as well, she added.
Huang also felt strongly about educating the community’s youth and felt the best education was a proper example.
“Specifically talking about children and young adults, think about it. These kids are not starting with drugs, they’re starting with tobacco,” Huang said. “As a public health director, I beg community adults, be a good example and stop smoking yourselves first.”
When asked about the potential for running a needle exchange program to provide a safe return of needles to keep them off of city streets and parks, Huang explained that it would need to go through legislature.
However, Morley said that because she is representing a coalition, things work a little differently than with public health and there is no need for legislature. She said there are plans to work with ACR to bring a needle exchange program in Oswego County.
Currently, while there is no needle exchange program, Oswego City Police Department has a drop off bin for unused, unneeded prescription pills.
Often, addicts begin their slope into substance abuse with the abuse of prescription pills. This drop bin allows community members the ability to safely drop off unused pills with no questions asked to ensure they stay out of the hands of addicts and are disposed of properly.
One of the biggest concerns for audience members was law enforcement response.
Assistant Chief Eiffe said that as first responders, they are in the front line of this epidemic. To ensure they uphold their duty, there has been an increase in safety training and awareness levels.
So far in the year 2016, the department has administered 16 Narcan shots with two confirmed deaths.
Batstone, with the Oswego County Drug Task Force, has been a part of a number of drug busts throughout the county.
While Batstone believes the Drug Task Force has a good handle on locations of dealers, there are many steps to follow before action can be taken.
First, it is necessary to have probable cause and then there must be a search warrant in order to enter the residence. “It’s very time consuming. And it’s difficult, it’s manpower intensive,” he said.
The Oswego County Drug Task Force is composed of nine members throughout the county and has a tip line for citizens to submit any suspicious sightings or tips. Batstone ensures they do reach out to people who believe they have information and they are often pointed in the right direction.
Katko encouraged all people to speak up if they see or know of something involving illegal drug use or manufacture. “If you want change, you have to speak up!” he said.
District Attorney Oakes also spoke on the treatment response offered for felony drug offenders.
If a felony offender in a drug-related crime passes the mandatory screening for the program, they can qualify for Drug Treatment Court which has been established since 1999.
In the program, the participant would plead to one felony and one misdemeanor charge and then begin their minimum of one-year treatment in which they attend regular classes and work with treatment providers. If they complete the program successfully, the felony charge will be essentially thrown away and the participant will then begin three years of probation.
If the participant does not complete the program, they will be sentenced to state prison with their felony charge. Oakes feels Drug Court has proved a successful implementation of treatment for drug offenders.
Another primary concern of guests was that of funding. One guest said the general answer for these problems being presented involved money, asking where these funds would come from as the county recognizes there is not excess funding available.
Katko said he hadn’t seen a final product of what the federal response was but noted, “Part of it’s going to be mandating more insurance overages for health insurance, they can’t basically run from it like some of them do now. Part of it is re-prioritizing funds from other endeavors, in the law enforcement field it’s simply prioritizing it.”
Katko reiterated that raising awareness is a huge component to being able to provide the needed services. The more the awareness is spread and the concern is raised, the more needed programs can be created and funds can be raised.
Panel member, Cori Welch, leader of Addiction Awareness, Sharing Without Shame, shared the warning signs as she recalls from her experiences with her daughter who battled an addiction with heroin.
Welch recalls that she believes her daughter’s addiction started with prescription pills and while she had a feeling there was something going on, she could only ask so many times.
She said that once the person is an addict with hard, controlled substances there will be certain things to look for such as things coming up missing like money, spoons, or tools.
“And they’ll always have an excuse,” she said. “They’ll never know what happened or where it went.”
She advises anyone with prescription pills to keep count of their supply, as they will often come up missing a few at a time. She said they will change their attire to cover injection sites, suddenly wearing long sleeve shirts at all times. They will become distant, they will sleep a lot and feel sick a lot, signs that they may be beginning to withdraw. When they suddenly are happy and themselves again, it’s likely because they used to feel better, she continued.
“They call it ‘getting right’,” said Batstone. “They don’t use it to get high anymore at that point, they use it to feel normal, get right.”
Batstone was told by users that withdrawing is like the flu, but ten times worse and constant for at least a month. All the while, knowing that one use of their drug of choice will take all the pain away within minutes, he said.
Katko urged all in attendance to go home and look in their medicine cabinets.
If you don’t use it, dispose of it safely, he said.
The event ended as a member of the audience stood up and offered to be a face for addiction.
Admitting she is an addict, Melissa said Batstone had even arrested her on multiple occasions and at one point, she was using up to 40 bags of heroin in one day. She believed she was lucky to even be alive, she said.
She brought up the concern that while it is illegal to have needles on your person with the intent to use drugs, it is not illegal to purchase them as anyone can walk into the pharmacy and buy needles and for a relatively cheap cost, an issue she felt needed to be addressed.
She also urged all loved ones of addicts to put their foot down, give them tough love and make them choose, life or death.
With that, Katko felt this was the perfect opportunity to end the night.
“On a note of hope. We are hoping and praying for you, and anyone else out here who is going through similar things, we are hoping and praying for you too,” he said. “And we aren’t just hoping and praying, we are doing something about it.”
He urged everyone to continue talking about the epidemic at hand, continue raising awareness and keeping it a relevant conversation to ensure it gets taken care of.