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State lawmakers discuss support for those with concurrent addiction and mental health issues

A crowd of demonstrators filling a street and holding a variety of banners.
New York NOW
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New York Health Act Rally in June.

State lawmakers heard testimony on Monday on how New York could integrate services from the Office of Addiction Services and the Office of Mental Health. Members of the Assembly held an hours-long meeting, speaking with stakeholders in the healthcare industry on what can be done to save the lives of people dealing with addiction and mental illness, which can at times be concurrent issues.

Assemblymember Aileen Gunther, a Democrat from Middletown who chairs the Mental Health Committee, said that overlapping treatment in those two areas has worked in the past.

“I’m going to go back almost 40 years, 35 years, when I first became a nurse. When people had come in with an addiction issue, there was a length of stay that was appropriate,” Gunther said. “They had meetings, they did exercise, they talked about food. Now this was years ago and because of medical insurance companies, everything was turned around and care was just let go.”

Gunther said that there was a tremendous success rate in the past with treatment centers, which removed people from toxic environments that may have led them to drug addiction.

Matt Shapiro from the New York chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness testified before lawmakers that he’s seen the system work, but also fail.

“Co-occurring disorders is something that has impacted my family greatly. I have two siblings who have had substance use issues,” Shapiro said. “I have two siblings, one didn’t get the care he needed, and is no longer with us, and one did get integrated care, and thank God he is living a productive, healthy life.”

Shapiro said his older brother suffered from substance use issues, and the family got him help for that, but they never considered mental health intervention. He died in September of 2019.

In contrast, Shapiro said his younger brother was addicted to painkillers after a neck surgery, but realized that he was using them for anxiety, and sought the proper help.

Assemblymember Phil Steck, a Democrat from Schenectady who chairs the Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, said during the hearing that a major hurdle to creating more beds for integrated services is money.

“Given the fact that there isn’t likely to be a huge amount of revenue raising, the difficulty you get into is that you have to take it from somewhere else,” Steck said. “I certainly could think of things that I could take it from to fund this particular area, and would be happy to do so. The problem is, that’s not the majority viewpoint, and it is, quite frankly, not the view of the governor.”

Assemblymember Keith Brown, a Republican from Northport, said that funding problem could soon be solved through legal settlements between the state and opioid companies, which are accused of acting in ways that furthered the state’s addiction crisis.

“There is opioid settlement money that is out there. There’s $17 million that’s floating around. I know that’s a one-time payment, but as more and more of these opioid cases get settled, there are funds,” Brown said. “I love the recent Carrie Woerner bill that creates a lock box for that money to make sure that the money is going for prevention and treatment, where it belongs.”

That bill, which was approved by both the Senate and Assembly in early June, would require that any revenue collected by the state through those settlements would be set aside and allocated specifically for addiction treatment, education, and prevention services.

Steck, who supported that bill, said it’s a good idea, but that it’s not a sure thing.

“There is no such thing as a locked box that’s perfectly locked. Every budget, the governor has used budget powers, and he can use budget leverage to make changes in existing legislation. Constitutionally, you cannot bind future legislatures,” Steck said. “I support the bill, but it’s going to require vigilance to make sure that money goes there.”

Steck said the appropriate approach for the time being is to look at ways to maximize the resources that are already available.