More than 1,300 died from opioid overdoses in CT in 2021. Will $300 million save lives?

When three 13-year-old boys were sickened by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl at a Hartford middle school on Jan. 13, it was a shocking reminder of the human toll of the opioid crisis. One of the boys later died and a sweep of the school surfaced 40 small plastic bags of the drug.

Later that same day, dozens of people spoke out against a proposal to locate a methadone clinic on a commercial street on the New Haven-Hamden border.

During the ongoing battle with COVID-19, there seems to be less attention being paid to opioid addiction, advocates say. But now these two events put opioids and opioid use disorder back in the spotlight. Deaths from opioid overdose in Connecticut have increased nearly 40% over the past three years, hitting 1,356 through the first 11 months of 2021 and, police say, the state is flooded with ever-more-powerful synthetic opioids.

The incidents on Jan. 13 illustrate two stubborn facts of the war on opioids: 1) The increase in overdoses indicates that the state isn’t winning, and 2) It’s difficult to get the most effective treatments for opioid use disorder to the people who need them.

Programs including methadone and buprenorphine are most effective for people who are diagnosed with having moderate to severe opioid use disorder, , according to numerous academic studies, including one published in February 2020 by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Yet people overwhelmingly end up enrolled in abstinence and detoxification programs, even though they’re effective in only 10 to 15% of the cases. Addiction experts believe stigma and barriers to access deter many from receiving life-saving medications.