Guest Editorial: In Broome County treatment services vote, the needs of the people won over politics

Last Wednesday evening, among a capacity crowd in the Broome County Legislative Chamber, the needs of the people won over politics.

The County Legislature has my heartfelt thanks for putting politics aside, working together for the good of our community and providing hope and opportunity for families across Broome County and the Southern Tier by voting to accept state funding to help establish much-needed addiction treatment services at the former Broome Developmental Center.

The numbers don’t lie, and the steady, year-over-year increase in the number of lives lost to addiction cannot be ignored. Tragically, for too long the stigma of heroin and addiction has clouded efforts to agree on meaningful solutions and enact sensible policy decisions. This year we saw every level of government all the way up to the President agreeing on the dire need to address this epidemic on a unified front. This week’s vote was a big step in the right direction, but it was only made possible by the hundreds of community members, families and loved ones of those dealing with addiction coming forward to be strong, passionate and persistent voices to help tear down that stigma over the past several years. 

Without an actively engaged community, this opportunity could very well have passed us by. This is a victory for them.

Thank you as well to the business community and the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce for recognizing the widespread impact the heroin epidemic has had on our local businesses, with thousands of jobs going unfilled because of the toll this crisis has taken on our local workforce.

I must also thank Governor Cuomo, the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), my partners in the Assembly, Donna Lupardo and Cliff Crouch, and County Executive Jason Garnar for putting politics aside and reaching across the aisle to re-purpose this woefully unused building and affect real positive change for families in Southern Tier. For many families, the help did not come quickly enough.

Finally, thank you to our local members of law enforcement for joining our collective voices and calling for the passage of this project. I’ll readily admit that there was a time in my previous law enforcement career when I naively thought we could arrest our way out of this mess, that if we simply had a larger team of investigators, we could swiftly beat back the pain and destruction this poison is wreaking on our community. But addiction’s an incredibly complex problem and if my service with the Broome County Sheriff’s Special Investigations Unit taught me anything, it’s that there are no silver bullet solutions to this epidemic and we can’t solve problems of this magnitude with punitive measures alone. 

We need to tackle this crisis at every turn, employing a multi-faceted community approach that incorporates not only law enforcement, but prevention, education, treatment and recovery. 

Otherwise we’re just shifting the burden of those struggling with addiction into our jails and emergency rooms, neither of which are adequately equipped to deal with them. Worse yet, we’re sending our loved ones and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars out of the community to pay for these services.

By allowing Syracuse Behavioral Health (SBH) to fill the necessary gaps here in the community, we’re keeping that money local, making these services accessible to folks in the Southern Tier who have long gone without it and putting those seeking help in a better position to succeed in fighting their addiction.

As State Senator, I spend much of my time traveling across the 52nd District and speaking face-to-face with residents, law enforcement, healthcare professionals, addiction specialists, educators, business owners and families about our community’s needs. As Co-Chair of the Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin & Opioid Addiction, I did the same statewide and from Buffalo to Newburgh, Cortland, Mineola and beyond, we consistently heard one similar refrain: there simply aren’t enough addiction services to meet the growing demand. 

Not only is there a lack of bed space for those seeking treatment, but many types of treatment, including inpatient detox, are nonexistent in communities across the state. 

Ask any addiction treatment specialist or health professional – for successful recovery from addiction, the addict has to be ready and willing to receive help. Oftentimes, it’s a very narrow window, and if the help isn’t readily available, then neither is hope and the cycle of addiction continues until its fatal conclusion, but not before destroying relationships, families and lives.

The addiction treatment services coming to the former Broome Developmental Center will help fill that gap in services and provide more tools in our community’s fight against addiction. 

When this project was first announced, there were rightfully many questions surrounding the specifics of introducing new treatment services to our community. My team and I worked with OASAS, my colleagues in the Assembly, the Broome County Departments of Health and Social Services and SBH to answer every question posed via public information meetings, online Frequently Asked Questions documents and dozens of meetings and emails.

We tried repeatedly to bring the Legislature together with representatives from OASAS and SBH to get their questions answered, whether it was private meetings or the many public hearings and forums we arranged to provide opportunities for questions and concerns to be answered.

Despite our extensive efforts to provide as much information to the public as possible, some in the community persisted in spreading false information and sometimes outright lies in opposition to this project. Thankfully, the truth prevailed. 

Some local legislators expressed reservations that 50 beds would be too much for a community this size, but according to the experts, when it comes to addiction treatment and healthcare in general, overstaffing puts patients in a much better position than understaffing.

OASAS’ plan calls for a capacity for up to 50 beds, with continuous monitoring and reassessment to ensure the number of beds available are actually needed for this type of service. If 50 beds are too many, that number will be reduced. Starting with more beds and reducing the number to better meet the needs of the community ensures that we are not turning anyone away that might need help. No one wants to be at capacity when it comes to treating the heroin epidemic, and the facility will be “right-sized” over time based on actual utilization with regular input from local stakeholders. OASAS is currently working to expand bed capacity across the state because many of these facilities started with too small a number. 

Others have warned that individuals from New York City would somehow be shipped to the Southern Tier to fill that bed space. This notion has zero evidence to support it, period.

New York City already has dozens of treatment centers available. There would be no reason to send those seeking treatment hours away from their homes when treatment is readily available nearby. For years, we’ve been sending our own people to other communities because of the lack of available treatment. Thanks to projects like this, I’m hopeful that someday we won’t need to. As a representative of not only families in Broome County, but Tioga, Chenango and Delaware Counties as well, I look forward families in our neighboring Upstate communities being able to access treatment locally, rather than having to travel to Syracuse, Rochester or out-of-state to get help.

Answers to these questions and more have been available on my Senate website, my Assembly colleagues’ websites and on the Broome County website for months. Asking questions is an important and necessary part of responsible governing, but asking the same questions over and over again because the truth doesn’t suit your argument is neither responsible nor is it governing.

I’m glad that many of the legislators received these answers in person at the Committee of the Whole meeting, but the bottom line is, the work isn’t finished, it’s only begun. OASAS will closely monitor the job Syracuse Behavioral Health does with this facility, and if changes need to be made for the good of the community, they will be made. I’ve also asked Broome County to keep a close eye on any potential impact on the Broome County taxpayer, and if there is indeed an impact, I’ll work tirelessly in Albany to make sure we’re able to offset that impact.

Finally, support for more addiction treatment in our community is not rejection for mental health or developmental disability services. I’ve long said that state government has fallen far too short in providing the most basic of human services for those in need. We made progress last year with the Be Fair 2 Direct Care movement, but we still have a long way to go in meeting those needs as well.

Still, despite our collective struggles to get this project over the goal line, working together and across party lines truly paid off, and the New Year truly brings with it a brighter future for families across the 52nd Senate District. We have a moral obligation to help our neighbors who are enslaved by this insidious disease and I feel it’s my responsibility as State Senator to carry the water for those who’ve lost their loved ones far too soon to overdose. It’s my responsibility to ensure their message is heard loud and clear so other families across the Southern Tier don’t have to bear the loss of their loved ones as well.

As I’ve said since being elected, it’s not about Republican or Democrat, it’s about doing what’s right for the people you represent. Thank you to the Broome County Legislators who voted yes. By doing so, they showed that they believe that, too. Democracy is alive and well.

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