Sen. Ayotte highlights drug-exposed newborn legislation

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MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Medical providers and first responders on Monday urged Sen. Kelly Ayotte to consider further incorporating mental health treatment into her efforts to address New Hampshire's heroin and prescription drug crisis.

Ayotte, a Republican, is co-sponsoring several pieces of legislation related to drug addiction treatment, including one that would direct the federal government to develop a strategy to help infants diagnosed with newborn withdrawal. At a discussion she led at Catholic Medical Center, hospital officials told her that the number of infants born at the hospital after being exposed to drugs in the womb has more than doubled to 7 percent in the last year.

Dr. William Edwards said the hospital helps such infants with its special nursery that allows parents to stay with their babies, but the bigger issue is that most of the mothers have some kind of mental illness in addition to addiction.

"This is a complex issue. This is a social issue this touches all manner of public health, law enforcement, protective services, legal, medical, addiction management, prenatal care, pediatric care, hospital care. ... and the piece that's really missing is the psychiatric support," he said. "It is a huge gap in the story."

In the last year, the hospital's emergency department treated 216 patients for heroin-related illness. Twenty percent of them were repeat customers, at an average cost of $12,000 per patient.

"It's a very complicated problem," said Dr. William Goodman. "We have 43 people who keep coming back, and it's difficult to give them what they really need."

Other participants suggested rethinking how many pain relievers patients are prescribed at one time or exploring new ways to help former addicts gain employment. Manchester Police Chief David Mara said education should be a greater focus, with children being warned about prescription drug abuse at an earlier age.

Like many other states, New Hampshire has seen a statewide spike in heroin use. The state recorded 321 drug-related deaths in 2014, about a third of which involved heroin alone or in combination with other drugs. In 2013, there were 193 drug-related deaths. Seventy of those were heroin-related.

Ayotte said helping infants is just one piece of a large puzzle and that she would take the information she heard back to Washington.

"No state has this fully licked. This is a huge national problem beyond what New Hampshire is facing," she said. "As a whole state, we need to be together on this at every level."

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