Battle Over Addiction Moves to State House

By Sue Ellen Woodcock

When it comes to combating the opioid crisis in Winthrop, there is a group of people working hard to make sure more people don’t die from opiates, that families get the support they need and others are educated about the perils of becoming an addict.

“We have developed a model that is working,” said Winthrop Police Officer Sarko Gergerian, who serves as the peer recovery liaison.

Last Wednesday, Gergerian and Police Chief Terence Delehanty, recovery coach Danielle Fernekees, Leigh Ann Eruzione of CASA, Amy Epstein, director of CASA, Winthrop Public Health nurse Meredith Hurley, recovery coach Chip McHugh and Town Manager James McKenna, went to the State House to update the Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, who is also a Winthrop resident.

The group spent over an hour sharing how the Winthrop Recovery Model is working. The model includes recovery coaches contacting those who have broken the law because of their addiction. Now the town’s recovery coaches can meet people in East Boston’s Drug Court and Suffolk County jails instead of having to wait three months before they can be seen.

“We shared a lot of new things we are doing,” Gergerian said. “He (DeLeo) listened to what is working and what is not working.”

“It’s working because the recovery coaches are working beyond what they are paid for,” said Amy Epstein, director of CASA. Recovery coaches are paid for through a grant to work 15 hours a week. The town manager’s office has requested more funding to increase the number of hours each week.

Winthrop police are also touching base with family and friends of people using opiates and other substances.

“We monitor and track our work,” Gergerian said. “There’s a lot talk and action. We are always assessing ourselves.”

After a year, 51 percent of people who are offered help say, “yes.” Gergerian said only two people have fallen back. In addition, more than half the people come for help because they have heard about the recovery coaches. One of the keys to success is helping breakdown barriers to begin recovery, such as childcare, food, and taxi vouchers.

Recovery coach Chip McHugh said bigger hurdles exist, such as finding a bed for someone.

“There’s a lot more to do,” McHugh said. “We meet you where you’re at.”

“We are in the midst of a public health crisis that is draining vitality from our hometowns and from communities across the Commonwealth,” DeLeo said. “I have been proud to shepherd two substance addiction bills through the Legislature that are having an immediate impact, yet there is still much work to be done.  Our focus on workable solutions, consensus-building and legislation that complements our budget investments has set a foundation for continual improvement. As we move forward I will continue to meet with local groups and authorities like CASA, Revere MGH, the East Boston Drug Court, and the Winthrop Police Chief and Winthrop Town Manager to discuss how we can tailor support to the specific needs of local communities.”

Working collaboratively with police, fire, recovery coaches and CASA have been impressive, Gergerian said. The police and fire are all first responders trained in administering Narcan (which can help get someone through until they can get treatment), and between all the agencies and volunteers in Winthrop there is a wealth of information. People often perceive police as kicking in doors, Gergerian said, but are pleasantly surprised when an officer asks if someone needs help.

The recovery coaches and CASA hold a weekly drop-in night at CASA from 5-8 p.m. on Thursday nights at 18 Bartlett Road. CASA can be reached at 617-207-1627.

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