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CT residents struggling with opioid addiction find hope with methadone

A nurse labels two weeks’ worth of methadone doses before handing them to Belmarie Lugo, who has earned the right to take larger quantities home after complying with the program for a year.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
A nurse labels two weeks’ worth of methadone doses before handing them to Belmarie Lugo, who has earned the right to take larger quantities home after complying with the program for a year. 

As addiction grips the state, Connecticut residents struggling with opioid misuse are turning to methadone. What is the state doing to make it more accessible?

WSHU’s Molly Ingram spoke with CT Mirror’s Andrew Brown to discuss his article, “How methadone, other meds are helping to lower CT opioid deaths,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hi, Andrew, great to have you here. Your story focuses on Belmarie Lugo — how did you meet Belmarie, and what has her experience with addiction and methadone been?

AB: Yeah, we met Belmarie as we began reporting this story. And we entered the story essentially knowing that we would look at medication-assisted treatment in Connecticut, and that was because earlier studies by the state had suggested that the need for medication-assisted treatment for people who are struggling with opioid use disorder was one of the primary needs in order to essentially counteract the deadly epidemic that continues to hit Connecticut and other parts of the country.

And so I began reaching out over the summer to these federally regulated organizations that dispense methadone and treat patients who are dealing with severe addictions to opioids, either prescription pain pills or more illicit drugs like fentanyl. We contacted the Root Center, which is based here in Hartford, but has operations in nearly a dozen locations. They put us in contact with Belmarie because she was somebody who was over a year into her recovery by this point, and was a very enthusiastic kind of proponent for medication-assisted treatment and the methadone she was using.

Belmarie is an East Hartford resident who had struggled with an opioid addiction for, I believe, a couple years or more, and she told me that by the time she came around to entering treatment in early 2022, she was malnourished because of her addiction. She had overdosed several times and had to be revived, or put into a cold bathtub by her friends. And she entered treatment, got put on a methadone maintenance program where you receive very precisely measured dosages of methadone and started receiving counseling.

We're going on two years here for her, and her life, she said, has been completely changed. I spoke to her father and her brother, both of them said that they've seen huge improvements in her life. She's able to hold down a job now, she's able to function. Whereas previously with her addiction, a lot of the side effects of opioid addiction, she just couldn't quite do anything, besides think about how to not have those side effects.

WSHU: And so briefly, how do these medications, like methadone, work?

AB: Methadone and another drug called buprenorphine are the most widely used medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. I'm more familiar with methadone. Methadone is a very regulated drug that is used in opioid addiction. It's been used for more than a century to treat people with opioid addictions. What happens is you come in, you receive therapy, in-person most of the time, and on top of that you receive methadone. Which allows people from what I've been told, to essentially balance some of the effects of opioid withdrawal.

You don't have the sweats, you don't have the pain that people go through kind of as they start weaning themselves off or going completely off of narcotics. Methadone itself is a narcotic, but the way it's administered through these liquid dosages, people are able to essentially return to their normal lives without having, again, those severe side effects of no longer using heroin or fentanyl.

WSHU: And in your story, you mentioned some of the statistics about how many people in Connecticut use this drug, and how many people have used it over the last 10 years. What do those numbers look like?

AB: The numbers in Connecticut have grown in the past decade of people who are being administered methadone and buprenorphine. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of methadone patients grew from 14,000 people to roughly 21,000 people. And between 2015 and 2020, the number of people getting a prescription for buprenorphine grew from 21,000 to 30,000.

Experts in Connecticut believe those numbers still aren't enough. And they pointed to the fact that those numbers have actually plateaued since the beginning of the pandemic, the rise in the number of people who are seeking out those treatment drugs has kind of just stagnated. And they say it's clear from just the overdose numbers in Connecticut, the number of people who are overdosing every year from opioids, that more people could use this type of treatment. So while the numbers are better than they were in 2012, they are still not where state officials think they should be.

WSHU: And what are they doing to get those numbers up, or down, I guess is the right word?

AB: The state right now has a committee that is deciding how to spend millions of dollars in legal settlement funds that they received from several lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. And part of that committee is trying to decide, you know, what steps can be taken to drive more people towards medication-assisted treatment. And I will say this, I think this is an important point. All of the research and all the medical evidence that is out there suggests that essentially treatment that either uses methadone or buprenorphine, in conjunction with therapies for opioid addiction are far more successful than these abstinence-based treatment programs.

And I say that because of clinical studies that have been done, and you know epidemiological studies that show that people's chances of overdosing, while they're in treatment, or relapsing into illicit drug use, are reduced quite significantly. In some cases, I think studies have shown up to 50% compared to somebody who's going through treatment for just using therapy, and essentially quitting cold turkey off of either heroin or fentanyl. So the state is very interested in figuring out a way to drive more people into those treatment programs.

And so a recent study that was put out suggested that the state could help people by providing better transportation services, by helping with insurance enrollment in those programs and generally just assisting people who are already seeking out medication-assisted treatment by providing supportive housing and that type of thing. And so there's a lot of interest in this right now from, you know, the medical experts, but it's yet to be seen whether the state will actually follow through with that and kind of see those numbers uptick.

WSHU: Was there anything you found that surprised you when you were reporting on this story, anything you weren't expecting?

AB: One of the more unexpected things: my colleagues are still reporting other stories related to opioid use, and there was a case that kind of drove home how prevalent the opioid addiction is in parts of Connecticut. So Belmarie lives in East Hartford and her brother runs a barbershop there. And we'd been around and talking to Belmarie for a couple of weeks.

But my colleagues were reporting on a different story related to the opioid epidemic in Connecticut, and they actually were interviewing someone else who lived in the same East Hartford neighborhood and went to Belmarie’s brothers' barbershop, he too was struggling and going through recovery for opioid addiction. Our photographer realized that these two stories were essentially connecting at this barbershop in East Hartford and it just really drove home the point of how common it is for people to be struggling with this disease in Connecticut right now.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.
Ann is an editor and senior content producer with WSHU, including the founding producer of the weekly talk show, The Full Story.