Thirty years after Trisha Rios began using opioids, her life has come full circle.
Rios’s journey included multiple treatment attempts, losing custody of her three older children, and an overdose that required the administration of naloxone. But today, she is in remission and has built a career dedicated to helping others dealing with addiction.
Rios works for the Overdose Action Team, a southeastern Connecticut community organization that was created to help residents overcome substance use disorders. The Overdose Action Team is also partnering with New London officials to figure out how to best spend the city’s allotment from the National Opioid Settlement.
“I never really thought I was going to stop using because opiates do something to you,” Rios said. “It makes you feel euphoric. It makes you feel like you could do so much more. I just never could see myself ever being really productive because I thought I was gonna die doing drugs.”
While Rios is a success story, New London struggles to keep up with the demand for city services as opioid addictions and overdoses continue. As a result, officials said, the $167,158.60 the city will receive over the next decade through the settlement will not go as far as needed.
The settlement requires pharmaceutical companies and manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to distribute money to states, like Connecticut, that joined the national lawsuit against the drug makers. The money, which is being allocated to cities and towns, must be used to help fight the opioid crisis.
“This [allocation] is a very modest amount compared to the costs of the opioid epidemic tragedy on our city and its families,” said New London Mayor Michael Passero.
New London has had 13 fatal opioid overdoses already this year, according to recent data provided by the state Department of Public Health. There have been 130 fatal opioid overdoses in the city in the last five years.
The first round of money is directly distributed to Connecticut cities and towns. It represents 15% of the total settlement from the first federal allocation to Connecticut.
According to the Attorney General’s office, there was a formula developed by the Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee to distribute the first federal allocation. The committee decided how much each municipality would get depending on how many opioid pills are dispensed, how many overdose deaths there are, and how many opioid use disorder cases in their town or city.
Last year, New London had the highest rate of overdose deaths of any town in the state at 157 per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The town had 43 total overdose deaths, the fifth-highest total in the state. Only a handful of the state’s largest cities — New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport — had more overdose deaths than New London.
The data also show that the issue has worsened in recent years. Between 2020 and 2021, the town's overdose deaths increased by 115%, more than 10 times the 11% increase statewide.
In addition to the $16,715.86 every year for 10 years, New London will also receive the much larger portion of settlement money, the 85% of the settlement, that goes directly to the state.
The state will then appoint stakeholders and officials to serve on the Opioid Advisory Committee to determine how the state will distribute its portion of the funds to municipalities.
Passero said the city “fully expect[s] to get much more money” when Connecticut hands out its portion of the funds.
New London officials proposed to the City Council at its Aug. 15 meeting that the city's initial allocation be used to purchase Narcan for first responders. Narcan is an emergency nasal spray that helps treat overdoses. Instead, the city decided to set up a special revenue fund for the settlement money it receives each year. Then, the purchase of Narcan will be allocated from that fund.
Jeanne Milstein, director of human services for New London and co-leader of the city’s Overdose Action Team, said the team recommends the city spend its portion of money to purchase Naloxone for distribution to first responders and community members.
“Naloxone saves lives, and our first priority with our work is to save lives,” Milstein said.
“We already distribute a lot of naloxone to community members ... we have to shake the couch cushions to find the money for that,” said Jennifer Muggeo, deputy director at Ledge Light Health District and co-leader of the city’s Overdose Action Team. “So this allocation really makes a big difference in our ability to saturate our community with naloxone.”
New London’s Overdose Action Team, which was established in 2016, is part of the city's Health Improvement Collaborative efforts.
The team uses a harm-reduction model to assist people. Team members, also called navigators, focus on going out into the community to talk with others and spread the word about their services. They focus on helping people with substance use disorders find treatment and other resources when they are ready to receive treatment.
“Our navigators are the most extraordinary people and have really helped so many people get the treatment that they need and so many other supports and services,” Milstein said.
Many navigators also have lived experience like Rios.
“Even though we [the navigators] may not be active in addiction, we still speak their [community members with substance use disorder] language,” Rios said. “That is what keeps our relationship with our participants.”
More money on the way
Milstein said both the city and members of the Overdose Action Team want to do more but can only achieve so much with the first round of money.
“We have other plans, assuming we will have large amounts of money,” she said. “We can talk about systemic issues, big picture issues, the kind of infrastructure we have in place, our model, our values [and] the language we use.”
There is little known about the Opioid Advisory Committee because the state is still in the early process of appointing members to the committee. The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services will help the committee make decisions on how much each town or city should receive.
Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill during the last legislative session that required all of the settlement money from the lawsuit to go directly to efforts in fighting the opioid epidemic. All cities and towns must use their portions accordingly.
Other cities are also deciding what they are going to do with their portion of the settlement.
Waterbury officials said they are working closely with the city's health department to determine how to spend their share. Waterbury will receive $73,000 during the first round of funding.
“We plan to use those funds for the purchase of Narcan and fentanyl test strips for our Warm Hand Off Program," Aisling McGuckin, director of health in Waterbury, said in a statement. The Warm Hand Off Program helps those with addictions find treatment.
New Haven officials said it is too early to know how much the state will allocate to their city, or how they will use it. Dr. Mehul Dalal, New Haven’s community services administrator, said the city experiences many overdose deaths and is looking to put the money toward data-driven approaches to fighting the epidemic.
According to Lenny Speiller, New Haven’s director of communications, there have been 56 fatal overdoses so far this year. Last year, there were 118. New Haven residents also entered an emergency department for a suspected overdose 633 times this year.
“The problem, at least in New Haven, is that many of the folks who are having overdoses and dying from overdoses have not been engaged in treatment or do not want to engage in treatment yet,” Dalal said. “I think we could still offer services to them so that they stay in the pipeline towards treatment.”
Hartford officials said they are still waiting to hear how much money will be allocated to the city, and will decide how to spend it after they get that information.
Rios is still worried for the future. She said the team is seeing more overdose deaths than ever before because of fentanyl-laced heroin.
“We're watching these people die because fentanyl is ultimately going to kill you if you don't stop,” Rios said. “Fentanyl has changed the game of addiction and the amount of people that we've lost and we're going to continue to lose.”