County Executive Pat Ryan said he hopes to cut Ulster County’s opioid death rate by half over the next two years by using what he said will be innovative approaches to enforcement, treatment and prevention. The initiatives will be funded through nearly $3 million in grant money targeting rural areas of the state hit hardest by the opioid epidemic.
At a Wednesday, July 10 press conference at the County Office Building to announce the plan, Ryan noted that Ulster County’s death rate from opioids had risen 345 percent between 2010 and 2018. Last year, Ulster led New York’s 62 counties in opioid deaths per capita. “We are in a public health crisis,” said Ryan, who made combating the opioid epidemic a centerpiece of his campaign for county executive.
Ryan’s plan builds on the work of an opioid task force appointed by former county executive Mike Hein. The proposal will be funded by a $2.5 million federal grant that will create a partnership with Columbia University to implement the program. Another $216,000 in state funds will pay for expanded treatment and overdose prevention services.
Among the most significant changes is a proposal to introduce “Medication Assisted Treatment” to the Ulster County Jail. MAT programs, which include the use of opioid substitutes like methadone and Suboxone have been proven effective in reducing deaths from opioid overdose and reducing addicts’ dependence on street drugs. But, until recently, corrections officials have almost universally resisted their introduction into jails and prisons.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa said that he wanted to give addicts entering the jail a range of options, including continuing methadone or Suboxone treatment begun before their incarceration. Figueroa said that he also planned to expand the work of the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team to include outreach to addicts. Under Figueroa’s proposal, URGENT would add a detective and a drug counselor. The team would be charged with contacting addicts and their families within 72 hours of a nonfatal overdose to offer treatment options. The effort would also include the development of a list of people deemed at high risk for an overdose who would be the focus of similar outreach efforts.
“People want action from government, people want action from law enforcement,” said Figueroa. “The mindset is changing because it has to change.”
Ryan’s proposal also includes the appointment of former Marbletown supervisor Vin Martello to the newly created post of director of opioid prevention and strategy. In that role, he will be responsible for implementing the recommendations of the county opioid task force. The recommendations are grouped into three broad categories — reducing supply, reducing demand and improving treatment and recovery services. Specific recommendations include the creation of a peer-to-peer education program targeting addicts, a program to educate healthcare providers and the public about alternatives to opioids in pain management and expanding programs that allow people to dispose of unwanted prescription drugs safely.
County officials said that opioid deaths in the county were trending down in 2018 after steadily rising for nearly a decade. But Ryan said his goal of a 50 percent reduction in two years was just the beginning of what he hoped would be the total eradication of overdose deaths in the county.
“We’ve done the thinking, we’ve done the analysis,” said Ryan. “Now is the time for action.”