Blumenthal visits Wheeler’s Bristol clinic to address opioid crisis

By LISA CAPOBIANCO

STAFF WRITER

As this week marks National Health Center Week, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) visited health centers statewide on Monday to address the opioid epidemic.

One of Blumenthal’s stops was the Wheeler Health & Wellness Center on North Main Street, which recently received a three-year $300,000 federal grant to address and prevent prescription and illegal opioid misuse by adolescent girls aged 12 to 18.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office on Women’s Health, the grant will provide $100,000 in annual funding over the course of three years to expand in-person and online training for a public health approach that involves early intervention and treatment services for individuals who are at risk of opioid misuse as well as for those who may already have an addiction. Known as Adolescent Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (A-SBIRT), this approach will help up to 4,500 prevention professionals, pediatric care primary providers and professionals who work or volunteer with adolescent girls throughout the state.

“It’s as much about prevention and early intervention as it is about referring to treatment,” said Judith Stonger, Wheeler Clinic’s vice president of Prevention, Wellness and Recovery. “The earlier we intervene, the better the long-term prognosis is going to be.”

During the three-year grant period, 1,500 professionals and volunteers will receive in-person training for A-SBIRT while 3,000 professionals and volunteers will receive online training in this approach.

Susan Walkama, president & CEO of Wheeler Clinic, said professionals who will undergo training can acquire tools that are needed to identify adolescent girls who may be at risk for opioid misuse.

“Once they identify them, they’ll know what to do,” said Walkama. “Many times they’re hesitant to ask us because they don’t know what to do.”

Blumenthal said there is bipartisan support for programs that “expand and enable better screening and prevention.”

“This grant will be able to train people to go out to other areas…and learn whether they are at risk, and if they are in jeopardy, to provide them with the kind of assistance they need,” said Blumenthal, noting that prevention is key. “What Wheeler is doing will be a model for other clinics and health centers around the country.”

During his visit to Wheeler, Blumenthal recognized the vital role that health centers play in combating the opioid epidemic, which continues to increase among women nationwide. Between 2002 and 2013, heroin use among women increased 100 percent, compared to 50 percent among men, as reported by the Office on Women’s Health.

“No community is immune from it,” said Blumenthal. “Every one of us knows a friend, a family member, a coworker, a neighbor who has been touched by the opioid epidemic.”

The U.S. also has seen a dramatic rise in overdose deaths from prescription painkillers.

Between 1999 and 2015, overdose deaths from prescription painkillers increased over 471 percent for women and 218 percent for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When girls or women use opioids, the amount of time it takes for them to become addicted is quicker compared to males, explained Stonger.

“The amount of time from first use until they become sick and addicted is shorter than for males,” said Stonger.

Wheeler Clinic was the only organization in Connecticut to receive the three-year federal grant. The HHS Office on Women’s Health has provided a total of $1.6 million in funding for 16 projects in 12 states over a three-year period.

For more information, visit www. wheelerclinic.org/.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (center) visits the Wheeler Health & Wellness Center in Bristol during National Health Center Week. During his visit, Judith Stonger (left) and Susan Walkama (right) led Blumenthal on a tour of the North Main Street facility.