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New Hampshire panel begins to attack drug abuse crisis

Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire spoke Tuesday in Concord to a legislative task force working to combat the state’s heroin crisis.Jim Cole/Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Drug overdoses have become the second most common cause of death in New Hampshire and could move into the top spot soon, Governor Maggie Hassan told lawmakers Tuesday as they began tackling the state’s substance abuse crisis.

Hassan was the first speaker to address a task force that will spend the next six weeks studying the issue and developing bills the state Legislature will consider when its new session starts in January.

She urged members to consider several proposals, include strengthening the state’s prescription monitoring program, reducing the over-prescription of powerful pain medication, providing additional support to law enforcement, and streamlining access to substance abuse treatment and recovery services.

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“There may be some who say we can’t afford to invest in these steps. I say we can’t afford not to,” she said. “Every month, we lose dozens of our fellow citizens, our families lose loved ones, and our businesses lose valuable workers. Our future shrinks before us. We must act now.”

Drug overdose deaths in New Hampshire climbed from 192 in 2013 to 326 last year, and nearly 300 have died so far this year. Hassan cited 2013 and 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show deaths from overdoses exceeding deaths from motor vehicle crashes, diabetes, kidney disease, and several common cancers. If all cancer deaths are combined, they exceed overdose deaths.

“If current trends continue, overdoses will likely overtake Alzheimer’s as the leading cause of death in our state,” she said.

The task force also heard from law enforcement officials, medical providers, and those involved in substance abuse treatment and recovery.

Tym Rourke of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation urged the task force to look beyond the drugs that have risen to the forefront and enact legislation that would address the state’s larger problems with alcohol and substance abuse.

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He described hearing from a distraught mother in 1995 struggling to find treatment for her daughter who lamented, “I would have to dig my daughter out of a ditch dead before anybody in the state of New Hampshire would care.”

“This crisis is not new,” said Rourke, who also leads the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery. “Why is it in New Hampshire and New England and not in other parts of the country? Is it cultural? Is it financing? Is it ‘Live Free or Die?’ Who knows. What I do know is our collective response to this epidemic for the last 30 years has been inadequate.”

Building a prevention and treatment system that addresses only the opioid epidemic is the wrong approach, he said.

“We will get through this, and there will be something else on the other side,” he said. “We need to finally build a system that addresses the state’s drug and alcohol epidemic, and stop digging ditches.”