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Tempers flare in debate over funding hotline for opioid crisis

Relatives who have lost loved ones in the opiate epidemic made impassioned pleas Thursday in an attempt to get members of the Erie County Legislature to take an immediate vote on funding a hotline to connect addicts with treatment.

They did not get their way, but by the end of the nearly 2-hour session, it appeared likely that the full Legislature, at its meeting next Thursday, will approve County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz’s $375,000 spending request, which also includes money for two new county Health Department staff members to keep up with demand for Narcan training, distribution of the opiate antidote and other education efforts to fight the epidemic.

“Lynne, make sure you send your condolences to the families of the 11 people who will die in the next week,” Avi Israel shouted at Legislator Lynne M. Dixon, I-Hamburg, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee. Israel’s son, Michael, took his own life while in the throes of prescription painkiller addiction in 2011. Israel was referring to the average weekly death rate of 11 suspected opiate overdose deaths this year.

Dixon had said there were legitimate reasons for delaying the committee’s vote because of questions over where funding for the hotline and hires would come from in the county budget. She repeatedly said that legislators recognize the immensity of the deadly epidemic and want to help. Dixon and other legislators also wanted to determine if Poloncarz’s request is the best approach.

Poloncarz, who was in Washington, D.C., at a national meeting on the opiate epidemic, weighed in on the county committee meeting in a tweet: “We have a $1.5 billion budget. 2015 will have a multimillion surplus which can be used. We easily can fund $375,000.”

Legislators wanted to know if the 911 police emergency line or the 211 health and human services line might be able to perform the functions of the hotline. County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein explained that the hotline would be operated by Crisis Services.

There were other intense moments.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, who is a member of the committee, accused Burstein of “politicizing” the meeting by listing the number of opiate overdose deaths for 2014 and 2015 in Dixon’s district, his district, and those of two other suburban Republican legislators – all on the committee. He wanted to know why other legislators’ districts were not mentioned by her.

“Many people feel that this is a problem inside the city of Buffalo and I was demonstrating that this is also a large problem outside the city limits,” said Burstein, who, at Lorigo’s request, read off the numbers for deaths in all of the legislative districts.

Israel, one of about a dozen people who held up photos of their deceased relatives, again shouted, pointing out that Poloncarz submitted the proposal on March 8 and that there was no more need for delay. “Are you going to do your job? I had to hold my son, whose blood and guts were all over the wall,” Israel said, choking up as he described the aftermath of when his son died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound.