Deaths from heroin and prescription drug overdoses have skyrocketed across the Rust Belt, parts of the Midwest, and northern New England, reaching an all-time high of more than thirty deaths per 100,000 in 2014 (the most recent year on record). The federal government estimates that the crisis has cost taxpayers some $55 billion in health and social costs each year, plus an addition $20 billion in emergency care related to opioid poisoning.
Individual states have struggled to come to grips with the crisis, with many pushing for greater investment in prevention and rehabilitation programs. The issue was a centerpiece of the presidential campaign in New Hampshire last year, as every candidate that traipsed through the Granite State had to present his or her plan for combating the drug problem. Numbers released in October of last year show that in only three months, more than 13 million doses of the sort of painkillers fueling the epidemic—like morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl—were prescribed in New Hampshire (which has an overall population of just 1.3 million). Between 2014 and 2015, opioid overdose deaths in New Hampshire jumped and emergency room visits related to heroin overdose nearly doubled. New Hampshire averages higher rates of painkiller consumption and dependence than both its neighboring states in New England and the national average.
Perhaps out of a sense of desperation, then, firefighters in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city, recently opened their doors to anyone struggling with opioid addiction. Addicts can walk through the door, trash any needles they may be carrying, and get enrolled in any number of recovery programs. It seems like a small gesture, but in fact many addicts resort to suicide for lack of any local support system. It started when EMS officer and Manchester paramedic Christopher Hickey reached out to the family member of a fellow fire-fighter whom he knew to be struggling with addiction. Hickey told the addict, “Why don’t you just come down here [to the fire station] before you do anything drastic,” according to a report by the New Hampshire Union Leader. Hickey admits he was then “surprised” when the addict actually showed up, but then after talking to him for about a quarter of an hour Hickey had connected the man to a rehabilitation program.
New Hampshire is now calling its community-based rehabilitation program Safe Station, and politicians have been eager join in the effort. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, for instance, helped formalize the initiative and worked to coordinate the support of local nonprofits, businesses, and private hospitals to fund and run the program. Safe Station has now grown to include some ten locations in Manchester that have helped nearly a thousand unique visitors; similar programs have started in Nashua, the state’s second-largest city.
It’s all a good example of how local initiative often responds directly to the most pressing issues facing a community, and that when nonprofits, local government, and private industry join forces to build a safety net, less people slip through the cracks.