A recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics has sounded the alarm on our country’s public health crisis, confirming that more than 100,000 Americans have died of an overdose in just one year, the first time this tragic barrier has ever been broken.

Kim Beauregard

We know the problem is hitting home here in Connecticut, where 1,374 people in the state died from opioid-involved overdoses in 2020, up 14.3 percent from 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic brought  new challenges for us all, but for many who struggle with addiction, the loss of access to treatment combined with increased mental health problems has become a burden too heavy to bear, ultimately leading to higher deaths caused by overdose.

As the chief executive of a Hartford community-based health care provider, I’ve witnessed first-hand the pandemic’s compounding role in drug use, and therefore drug overdoses. Nearly two years into this crisis, our nation’s health care industry may be settling into a “new normal,” but we also continue to battle persistent challenges for which we still need solutions. This new report and its startling findings should be a wake up call to policymakers at all levels of government that additional resources and reforms are needed in order for our country to deliver care of all types — urgent, primary and secondary — to those in need.

That conversation should be focused squarely on providing access to care where it is most needed: at the community level in underserved areas. Community based health centers like the one I run are in the trenches, providing a wide range of health services to individuals who very often have gone without consistent access to care for many years, or even their entire lives. We see on a daily basis how this public health crisis is affecting not only people suffering from addiction, but their families and their communities at-large.

We know that through increased treatment and prevention for those most in need, those communities would see a positive compounding effect, taking pressure off of other societal problems including crime, poverty, and workforce participation. It can be done by providing local community providers with additional support and funding, so we can offer more services for patients across both primary care and behavioral health, including detox and residential programs, outpatient treatment, medication assisted treatment, and recovery support.

There are ample ways to fund this additional support. In addition to both ongoing, programmatic funding at the state and federal level, as well as the recent injection of federal stimulus funds, there are other unique and timely opportunities. Earlier this year, Connecticut signed on to a $26 billion national settlement from the country’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — along with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, after the pharmaceutical companies failed to respond to warning signs about the over-proliferation of addictive pain drugs. The new agreement is expected to bring $300 million to Connecticut, funding intended to help our state tackle the opioid epidemic over a number of years. While the crux of this case is disappointing and was absolutely avoidable, the settlement provides us with yet another tool for combatting this public health crisis by giving our most vulnerable access to quality recovery treatment.

Connecticut should make the most of this opportunity, and it can do so in part by supporting community health providers. In addition to providing the full scope of critical services mentioned above, these providers employ trusted members of the areas we serve. We are ingrained into the fabric of our communities, and our employees are very often neighbors to the patients we serve. This highly localized and personalized focus is absolutely the right place to combat a problem like opioid addiction, which is so perniciously attacking communities at a personal and family level. Putting these litigation funds to work at community-based providers will allow more Connecticut residents the best and most immediate chance to receive the treatment they need through every step of their recovery process.

As we continue to navigate the aftermath of the pandemic, policymakers don’t have to look far to find an infrastructure of caregivers ready to do more to help our state residents. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to empower and support solutions we know can and will have the most direct impact right where help is needed most: in our local communities.

Kim Beauregard is the President and Chief Executive Officer of InterCommunity Health Care in Hartford.