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Lt. Gov. Hochul seeks feedback in Buffalo opioid roundtable meeting

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

State lawmakers say the legislation passed and signed earlier this year to battle opioid addiction is a good start but there is more that needs to be done. Monday morning in Buffalo, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul led a roundtable discussion, during which many people who work on the front lines of the addiction crisis provided feedback.

The comprehensive package signed into lawby Governor Cuomo in June includes insurance reforms, education for physicians about pain medication management, new limits on prescriptions and additional beds for treatment. While stating that the updated legislation puts New York ahead of other states, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and other state leaders in attendance agreed that additional measures need to be taken.

The purpose of Hochul's meeting, hosted inside Horizon Health Services' Hertel Avenue facility, was to hear suggestions from health commissioners, clinic operators and families of those who have battled or are currently battling the disease of addiction.

"It wasn't just about signing that legislation into law. It's also about the impact on communities like Western New York," Hochul said. "I convened the providers, listened to them about how they think the law is going be beneficial, but also what still needs to be done."

Among the feedback received was a call for more long-term recovery options. Also, concerns were raised for better working conditions for addiction treatment staff, including wages. Many clinics, it was reported, struggle to keep staff because they are leaving for positions with insurance companies, where salaries are higher.

Still more feedback included a call to put more emphasis on additional drugs being abused, including methadone and others.

"We still have a problem with fentanyl and benzodiazepines as probably the next big, dangerous drug that's lethal," said Horizon Health Services president and CEO Anne Constantino. "I think we have to expand the awareness campaign to talk about those very important drugs."

The roundtable meeting also allowed elected leaders to see human faces in the ongoing battle against addiction. Debra Smith was among three speakers who have lost loved ones to addiction in recent years. Her son, Nathaniel, succumbed to his addiction last year. He had become hooked on the pain medication he was taking for kidney stones and was unable to secure medically-assisted withdrawal treatment upon his release from the hospital.

Testifying was painful for Smith, who held back tears during her speaking time. She said after the meeting that she cannot truly describe the feeling of seeing the empty bedroom, the empty seat at the dinner table and no longer hearing her son say "I love you, Mom."

She advocated for a single entry point for treatment and for support services that families need. Smith also relayed 

"I don't want to see another parent endure what we have endured, we who have lost loved ones, in a preventable manner," Smith said. "We need to address this epidemic and we need to address it where it starts. It starts in our communities and in our homes. We need to be able to reach out to each other."

State Senators Tim Kennedy, Robert Ortt and Michael Ranzenhofer flanked Hochul during the roundtable discussion and credited the people working directly with addicts for providing the pointers which helped them draft and pass legislation. 

"All the changes, they didn't come out of Albany. They came from all of you and your colleagues around the state," Senator Ortt said.

Lawmakers are continuing to ask those people for help.

"Quite frankly, we need you not just here today but moving forward to help us to drive this agenda forward, so that those who are getting in the way - whether it be big pharma or insurance or whoever - is educated," State Senator Kennedy said. "And we either get them out of the way, get them on board or we run them over."

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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