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SNAP Cuts Would Worsen Opioid Crisis

As a native Staten Islander, I am deeply concerned about proposals coming from Washington D.C. that take an axe to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and how cuts will affect people in our borough struggling with addiction.

In Staten Island, in New York more broadly, and across the country, millions are struggling with the realities of opioid addiction and the challenges of recovery. Since the start of the epidemic, policymakers and politicians in both parties, including Congressman Donovan, have come to recognize that substance use disorders are a public health issue and that recovery requires treatment. Yet as someone who works for people who have struggled with addiction, I know that ending addiction requires more than medicine and therapy. It also means rebuilding lives and ensuring recovery isn’t derailed by something as fundamental as a struggle to put food on the table.

That’s where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps, comes in. As one of our nation’s most powerful and effective poverty-reduction programs, SNAP helps more than 2.9 million New Yorkers afford healthy meals and on Staten Island alone, SNAP helps over 1 in 10 residents with basic nutrition needs.. SNAP works by providing modest benefits to people with very limited means – about $1.49 per person per meal – but it is proven to help people get back on their feet faster.

Despite its effectiveness, the House Agriculture Committee has proposed cutting the program by more than $17 billion and diverting much of that money to a risky new scheme of ineffective training programs and unforgiving penalties in their version of the 2018 Farm Bill, the legislation that funds SNAP. For every meal the 2018 Farm Bill takes from the plates of those with little, it increases spending on bureaucracy. In fact, it increases administrative costs by $15 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The bill also makes sweeping and harmful changes to SNAP that would increase paperwork, waste taxpayer dollars, and reverse previous efforts to improve the program and reach those in need of food assistance. All of this is done without any evidence to support such a dramatic change to the program.

For New Yorkers struggling with addiction, the Farm Bill under consideration would mean new and higher barriers to recovery. That’s because many of the harsh rules and requirements will apply to people just finishing their treatment. Under its “one strike and you’re out” provision, someone who doesn’t prove every month that they work enough hours would be kicked off SNAP for an entire year, unless they get a job that meets the requirement or requalify through an exemption such as disability ( our government does not define chronic substance abuse disorder as a disability, even though it is a deadly disease); the second time, they would lose benefits for three years. Instead of planning for their future, people recovering from opioid addiction will be forced to navigate unnecessary red tape just so they can feed their families. Unfortunately, this could result in many falling through the cracks, losing food assistance, and risking a dangerous fall back into addiction.

This week at our Spring Brunch, we heard the testimony of a Staten Islander who has struggled with addiction and has now achieved more than twenty years of recovery and serves tirelessly the recovering community of Staten Island addicts and alcoholics with all his heart.  Elwood, like so many others, used  SNAP benefits to support him in the long road to recovery. It would have been a more treacherous road without SNAP benefits.

Putting those already struggling with our national health crisis, like Elwood, in further jeopardy isn’t kind, wise, or necessary. It’s a step backward in a devastating fight that has already cost our borough too many lives.

I have been impressed by Congressman Donovan’s commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic. His efforts to increase awareness and target the causes of addiction are critical, and I hope to work with him to make them successful.  I know that these efforts must include protecting SNAP.

To do this, I urge Rep. Donovan to reject the House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill and any attempt to make drastic cuts and changes to SNAP. Those in recovery must have access to the resources they need rather than fear and worry about how they will feed themselves and their families. Our leaders must support policy changes to end this epidemic — not ones that make it worse, as cuts to SNAP would do.

Recovery from addiction is a long road, and we have a lot of work left to do to confront this epidemic head-on. We need dedicated leaders like Rep. Donovan to ensure we continue to place the lives of our family members struggling with addiction first and not let partisan efforts take us to a place of even more suffering.

*Rev. Terry Troia serves as President of Project Hospitality. 

Buprenorphine Training Equips Staten Island Healthcare Professionals to Offer Medication-Assisted Treatment

There are many different paths on the road to recovery from opioid use disorder. Each individual must find the path that works for them, and sometimes that path involves medication-assisted treatment such as buprenorphine, also known as Bupe or its brand names Suboxone and Subutex.

Studies have shown that buprenorphine is highly effective in treating opioid use disorder. According to the results of a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) survey, physicians and patients reported an average of an 80% reduction in illicit opioid use, along with increases in employment and other determinants of health.

However, in order to be treated with buprenorphine, individuals seeking recovery must first find a provider who is certified (or waivered) to offer the treatment. With Staten Island being an epicenter of the opioid crisis, the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness (SIPCW) and the Staten Island Performing Provider System (SI PPS) have been working diligently to ensure that this evidence-based treatment is available to all individuals in a primary care setting. Our vision is to have buprenorphine treatment integrated in healthcare providers’ offices across the Island, where opioid use disorder can be managed alongside a patient’s other health issues. To achieve this, SIPCW’s Nadeen Makhlouf, PharmD., MPH has been providing clinical coaching and support to existing buprenorphine providers in order to expand their services and to certify a new wave of providers to meet the need of the community. Through SI PPS’s Behavioral Health Infrastructure Project (BHIP), SIPCW coordinated a buprenorphine training at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC) this past Friday, provided by New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH).

While previous training sessions only reached a handful of Staten Island-based healthcare professionals, Friday’s training included 34 clinicians from various backgrounds and departments, willing and enthusiastic at the prospect of helping Staten Islanders achieve recovery. Due to the response to this event, SIPCW and NYC DOHMH are exploring additional training opportunities for local providers, including an event at Staten Island University Hospital – Northwell Health.

Makhlouf, SIPCW’s Senior Coordinator for Clinical Outreach and Education, arranged the event. “We’re so grateful to every single person in the room that took more than six hours out of their busy schedules for this vital training,” said Makhlouf. “This response has taught us that Staten Island healthcare providers and hospital systems understand the gravity of this crisis and the steps needed to help certain individuals find recovery. Thank you to all who supported this event, especially President and CEO of Richmond University Medical Center, Dr. Daniel J. Messina; the Staten Island Borough President James Oddo‘s Health and Wellness Director, Dr. Ginny Mantello; the Executive Director of the Staten Island Performing Provider System, Joseph Conte, PhD, CPHQ; and Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use Prevention, Care and Treatment at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Hillary Kunins.”

To find a buprenorphine treatment practitioner, visit SAMHSA’s practitioner locator.

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