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Suffolk County has the ignoble distinction of poster child in New York’s spiraling heroin crisis. Suffolk had the highest number of opioid-related deaths — and the number of heroin overdose deaths specifically — among all 62 counties in New York State during the five-year period of 2009 to 2013, according to a report released last week by the state health department.

Together, Long Island and the five boroughs of New York City accounted for 57 percent of the 1,755 opioid-related deaths during that period, the first-of-its-kind report shows.

2016_0411_opioid_deaths_nys_2009-2013That doesn’t mean that opioid abuse and overdoses are not affecting upstate counties, however. Looking past the raw numbers to the opioid-related death rate per 100,000 residents demonstrates that the problem is statewide, with upstate Sullivan (17.8 per 100,000), Duchess (15.1) and Greene (15.2) counties topping the list of deaths related to opioids. Suffolk is fifth on that list, with the counties of New York City filling out the top 10.

For heroin overdose deaths specifically, Suffolk’s rate per 100,000 places it second in the state, behind Duchess, according to the data.

The data presented in the state health department report, “Opioid Poisoning, Overdose and Prevention: 2015 Report to the Governor and NYS Legislature,” alarmed local county and state lawmakers, who yesterday called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase inpatient treatment capabilities in Suffolk.

“Suffolk County is number one out of 62 counties,” Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport) said at a press conference yesterday afternoon outside the state office building in Hauppauge.

“If that doesn’t spell epidemic, I don’t know what does,” Raia said. The assemblyman said the state urgently needs to address the “shortage of inpatient beds” on Long Island.

“I’m calling on the governor to repurpose Pilgrim Psychiatric Center and Sagamore Children’s Psychiatric Center, which are only operating at one-quarter percent filled at best,” Raia said.

County Legislator William Spencer, a medical doctor who chairs the legislature’s health committee and has focused on the growing opioid crisis, called for prescription opioid manufacturers to bear more responsibility for the crisis.

“I’m happy we’re saving lives with Narcan, but we’re treating the symptom and we’re not doing anything to address the problem that brought them to that place where they overdosed to begin with,” Spencer said. “We have to make the manufacturers come to the table and also accept responsibility,” he said.

The administration of the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan has risen dramatically since 2014, following the FDA approval in 2012 of a mucosal atomizer device that can be used to squirt the drug up the nose of a victim — rather than having to inject it. That made Narcan, which has been used successfully by emergency room doctors and paramedics for decades, much more accessible for use by non-paramedics.

Suffolk County police and health departments have been training police officers, firefighters, rescue workers and community members in the nasal administration of the drug. Statewide, the Narcan administration leapt from 177 in 2013 to 1,608 in 2015.

Suffolk has led the state in Narcan administration as well, since it was selected for a state health department pilot program to conduct training and distribute Narcan to first responders and community members. There were more than 500 Narcan saves in Suffolk in 2015 alone.

But the rise in Narcan use has not stemmed the tide of overdose deaths during the same period.

Lack of inpatient treatment facilities and the refusal of health insurance companies to cover the costs of inpatient treatment prevent the course of therapy thought to be most effective for recovering addicts.

Inpatient treatment admissions for opioid and heroin addiction statewide actually fell from 3,144 in 2010 to 2,521 in 2014. During that same period, the statewide number of opioid-related hospital emergency department admissions jumped more than 73 percent, from 21,806 in 2010 to 37,747 in 2014.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.