By Mike Gwizdala
TROY, N.Y. — New York State Attorney General Letitia James continued to embark on her statewide ‘HealNY’ tour of New York with a stop in Rensselaer County on Wednesday.
James is delivering up to $32 million to the Capital Region to combat the opioid epidemic. The funds derive from multiple settlements Attorney General James has negotiated following her March 2019 lawsuit against the various manufacturers and distributors responsible for the opioid crisis.
Specifically, Rensselaer County is slated to receive either a minimum of $1,068,187.17 or a maximum of $1,866,135.66. Those funds will go to help programs such as Elizabeth House Women’s Residential Treatment Facility in Troy, where James paid a visit.
“The settlement calls for putting regulations on prescriptions and certain alerts going forward so that we can prevent this opioid crisis again so that doctors are not in a position where they write prescriptions for toothaches and give individuals 50 and 60 pills of oxycontin that are highly addictive. Those days are over. There will be much more monitoring and a system of checks and balances,” James remarked on the policy changes as a result of the settlement.
James emphasized the importance of those funds reaching directly to caregivers.
“It is a struggle and we haven’t focused on human services and we haven’t paid individuals who work for not for profits and organizations such as this, a living wage in some time,” James said.
“They do the work of the angels, they address the needs that are oftentimes overlooked. They take care of our children, our seniors, people in congregate care, and people in facilities like this,” James continued.
“That’s why the litigation and the settlement is so key and that’s why I want to thank members of the legislature both in the Assembly and the Senate who represent Troy, who decided to place these settlement funds in a lockbox that will be solely used for education, treatment, and prevention and it will go a long way again in providing for resources that this organization needs and addressing the people who work around the clock to provide hope and inspiration for people who are struggling post-addiction,” James noted regarding the direct allocation of funds.
“It’s so critically important and the legislature will be forming an opioid advisory committee and those individuals will be responsible for funding projects all throughout the state of New York, from Buffalo all the way to Suffolk County and we’ll be doing it subject to the four corners of the settlement document,” James added.
Jessica Sorbello, LMSW and Program Manager of the Elizabeth House, commented on the vital need for direct funds for their program.
“It’s important that they come directly back into the addiction services because we are the ones on the front line,” Sorbello said.
“This is the stop of a lot of our residents between active addiction, the beginning of recovery, and then when they’re back out into the world. In the big picture of their lives, nine months is not very long to get all of the skills to unlearn relying on drugs and unlearn that sort of mentality and then relearn healthy ways of coping, ways to deal with their emotions, ways to fill their free time and to be able to develop just a healthier mindset,” Sorbello continued.
“So, those funds will help any client coming into rehab to be able to have a better chance at living a safer life,” Sorbello added.
Sorbello also expounded upon the need for those crucial resources to be expanded.
“I think it’s a huge part of trying to build a safe environment. We have a building and that’s a great place to start but if we talk about safety, safety includes having enough staff to be able to listen to, support, and assist them,” Sorbello remarked.
“Safety includes enough staff being trained in Narcan, medication management, it includes enough staff to be able to help them with their mental health, versus coming in and kind of just band-aiding a shift in place to be able to keep everybody here. It would help us to be able to bring in other resources to help fill their lives with things other than getting high,” Sorbello added on the need for a workforce carrying those skills.
Kevin M, Connally, Executive Director of Hope House, Inc., echoed those sentiments on funding resources.
“I’m really thrilled the AG is talking about putting some of the opioid settlement money back into prevention treatment and recovery,” Connally said.
“We absolutely have to continue to keep working on the prevention piece. Let’s stop it before people get into the deep end of this pool. We need to be able to have those services and we need to be able to enhance our workforce,” Connally continued.
“For far too long we’ve been underpaying staff and expecting a lot out of them and we need to be able to start paying them a better wage because we’re requiring more and more from them, so I was honored to have the AG visit us here at Elizabeth House,” Connally added.
James also discussed the importance of more collaboration between state agencies, breaking them free from their respective silos. In particular, James noted the need to merge services between OASIS and OMH.
“I think the issue with regards to the agencies is really important. You’ve got individuals who are mentally ill and chemically addicted, known as MICA,” James remarked.
“We’ve got to talk about consolidating services. You’ve got two giant agencies that are operating in silos. And you’ve got people who are struggling and what we really need to do is again have a one-stop approach to healing. It can be very stressful for someone who is recovering if they’ve got to go to multiple locations, multiple appointments, multiple people, to get assistance. We can do better than that in this state,” James noted on the need to streamline services.
“It’s an issue that I’ve been focusing on with respect to how to reimagine and inject some change into some of the state agencies. As you know, we really haven’t examined state agencies in some time and it needs to be evidence-based, so that’s my approach,” James explained.
James further described what that reimagined process may involve.
“We’ve got to rely upon professionals and so there were two individuals here who represent this wonderful organization. We’ve got to rely on professionals and so we need a number of think tanks, we need a number of experts in different areas and fields who can advise us on some changes that are needed in state government and that’s critically important,” James said.
“We’ve got to rely upon others and not think that we’re the smartest person in the room. Hopefully going forward the state agencies will do just that and the leadership of the state will do just that,” James added.
The notion of combing those services rang positively with Connally.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about combing OASIS with the Office of Mental Health and a few years ago it had picked up a lot of steam, and then it was halted,” Connally said.
“The conversation’s come up again and I really feel that it’s something that should be done because we need to make this easier for providers and we need to be able to have the resources to be able to treat our clients both on the addiction side and on the mental health side. By having it as one agency, it’ll alleviate a lot of the duplication, so I’m really hoping that that’s something that’s happened,” Connally explained regarding having the agencies communicate as one.
Additionally, James commented on Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony regarding how social media, specifically Instagram is causing mental health and self-esteem issues among teens, especially teen girls. Issues that could potentially cause a spiral into mental health and addiction problems.
“What Congress needs to do is look at Section 230. What Congress needs to do is provide more accountability and transparency with Facebook. What Congress needs to do is to update our antitrust laws,” James remarked.
“Congress can do a lot and this is an issue where we’ve got bipartisan support and so it’s critically important that they also focus on content, misinformation, disinformation, and they focus on hate which is a major issue on social media and all of those algorithms which unfortunately target individuals and get them addicted so that they can optimize on their profits,” James noted on better monitoring and regulating social media sites like Facebook.
James added that if Congress does not act, she and fellow state attorneys general will continue to pursue litigation avenues against the company.