MANCHESTER, NH — Gov. Maggie Hassan signed two bills into law during a brief ceremony at the Manchester Police Athletic League center on June 24 — part of a highlights reel of progress and progress reports — in the city’s continued push to improve services and outcomes for those struggling with addiction.
Senate Bills 522 and Senate Bill 533 will bring additional resources to the state for drug prevention, treatment, recovery and housing options, and also upgrade the technology running the state’s prescription drug monitoring program.
The bill-signing took place during a regular meeting of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol & Drug Abuse Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment, which is kicking off a series of community-based meetings, to bring their meetings to communities around the state every other month, said Commission Chairman Tym Rourke.
Rourke said initiatives in communities around the state have attributed to the 34 percent increase in treatment for those seeking help with addiction between March and May — initiatives including the Safe Station program in Manchester, which Mayor Ted Gatsas outlined to the commission during the meeting, with an assist from Chris Hickey, the city’s City Director of Emergency Services.
I can tell you every day they are leading on this fight,” said Gatsas, introducing Fire Chief Dan Goonan, Police Chief Nick Willard, and other community leaders who helped shape the program.
Gatsas relayed how the program got its start in Manchester — an email from Hickey floating a big idea, after a family member of a Manchester firefighter came to a fire station seeking help.
That prompted Hickey to imagine a system where anyone could walk into any one of the city’s 10 fire stations at any time of the day or night and receive immediate assistance in beginning their road to recovery.
Hickey wrote that he was afraid to send the person away without connecting them to help, for fear that they wouldn’t follow through. He sees, first hand, the number of repeat calls for overdose, many which result in death. It is the norm for those who fall through the gaps, between wanting help and receiving it.
Hickey brought the person who came into the fire station to Hope for NH Recovery where they immediately connected with a Recovery Coach, someone who is in long-term recovery and helps shepherd each person through the process of getting treatment.
Hickey said since May 4 more than 170 people have walked into a city fire station seeking help, and around 70 percent of those have found their way to treatment.
“Our busiest day so far was Father’s Day,” said Hickey. “All male, all with children. They said they wanted to be there for their kids.”
During the presentation Gatsas delivered a letter formally requesting $250,000 from the commission, with the first $100,000 as a match for the city’s Safe Station and Amber’s Place programs, and the remaining $150,000 to be allocated toward statewide expansion of the program, for education and training of local EMS personnel.
Hickey said he has been fielding calls from around the country from communities seeking help in establishing similar programs. The greatest challenges remain a lack of available recovery resources here in New Hampshire, and suitable recovery housing options.
Rourke noted that allocation of resources by the commission should be done with an eye to development of a comprehensive state plan for treatment, recovery and other services. He also urged the commission to think about gathering resources “from multiple buckets” as they approach a new budget year.
Rourke asked whether Hickey or Gatsas could draw a direct line between the recent drop in drug overdoses and Safe Station program.
Hickey said it had been a community effort, including diligence by the Manchester Police Department’s Granite Hammer initiative, in trying to keep drugs off the street.
Commission member Marty Boldin called Smart Station the “smartest most innovative approach to this program” he’d ever seen.
“It’s absolutely brilliant, and the fact that its so simple is what makes it so brilliant,” Bouldin said. “What you’ve done is found a new way for people to access help that borrows from the Police Department idea, but takes away from people’s fear of engaging with police.”
Gatsas said while there is no silver bullet to fix the drug and addiction problem, Safe Station works because it’s part of a three-pronged effort that depends on having a community recovery center in Hope for NH established in the community, an emergency shelter beds available, such as Amber’s Place — a program of Hope for NH — working together with local hospitals and other providers.