By Julie Abbass, Published July 30, 2019

LOWVILLE — Leaders from local and county governments, agencies and organizations working together on the addiction spectrum in Lewis County, gathered to present their perspectives and challenges to diminishing addiction in a roundtable discussion led by U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.

Although the meeting was slated to focus on “the opioid crisis” specifically, the majority of speakers addressed addiction as a whole.

Many attendees said the basic force that drives addiction is simple: many people don’t like the way they feel and they want to feel better.

The treatment, however, is much more complex, attendees said.

From social services, to prevention services, first responders and law enforcement representatives, the lack of resources, including financial, the lack of a trained workforce and limited rehabilitation facilities were touched upon.

“If you’re looking at an individual and you want to position them for success [in rehabilitation] you’re going to have to ensure they’re connected to housing, food, employment and support services such as self-help, outpatient services,” said county Community Services Director Patricia Fralick.

She noted if a person returns to circumstances that contributed to the addition, they are set up for failure.

“We’ve got a lot of need but not a lot of slots [for in-patient rehabilitation programs],” Ms. Fralick said.

In response to a question posed by state Assemblyman Kenneth Blankenbush, R-Black River, asking what the state can do to help the financial issue, Mrs. Fralick pulled no punches.

“Sometimes when the state comes with help, it isn’t necessarily well thought out,” she said.

District Attorney Leanne Moser expressed concern over the effectiveness of the state Willard Rehabilitation Program in which drug offenders can be mandated to participate in a 90-day inpatient program but are released with very little support. She said she sees many people relapsing after the too-short treatment.

There are currently no in-patient facilities in the county and very limited treatment programs even in neighboring counties.

“We need to make sure as we’re giving federal dollars we understand that some of this is regional and there needs to be programs that go beyond one county to the next, so making sure we’re working with Jefferson County, making sure we’re working with Utica,” Ms. Stefanik said after the event, “I think greater flexibility will help that.”

County Manager Ryan Piche told Ms. Stefanik that one of the biggest barriers to having programs in Lewis County is the low Medicaid reimbursement rates to practitioners, making it very difficult for providers to pay a wage that will attract a well-trained workforce to the area.

Both Mr. Bankenbush and Ms. Stefanik criticized the state medicaid program and said that funds are not being used properly but did not specifically address whether or not reimbursement rates could or would be addressed.

On the law enforcement side of the equation, there has been some success with the establishment of the county’s Drug Task Force, but, “We realize we can’t arrest ourselves out of the situation,” investigator in the district attorney’s office, John Pignone said, “It’s not always about putting handcuffs on.”

Sheriff Michael Carpinelli brought up the mixed message the legalization of marijuana sends to people noting that it is a “gateway drug,” many of those present said poses a similar threat as alcohol compared to the other drugs available.

Up! Coalition Director Cassie Forbus said that in a September survey by her organization of 906 county students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12, they found that in the 30 days prior to the survey, 15.9% had used alcohol, 12.3% had smoked e-cigarettes and 5.9% had used marijuana. Inhalants, opioids were cited by .5 percent.

After thanking Ms. Stefanik for her offer to help, Sheriff Carpinelli said, “What we’re looking at is the funding. We need the funding, The bottom line is, we need it in our budgets.”

Ms. Stefanik said roundtable discussions offer an important opportunity for her to give updates on available federal resources and to get information directly from communities.

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