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Meriden opioid referral group celebrates new federal grant, vows expanded service

MERIDEN — State legislators, community members and medical providers gathered for a press conference at Rushford Wednesday morning to discuss how a new federal grant will be applied to the Meriden Opioid Referral for Recovery program, also known as MORR.

Last week, the city of Meriden and Rushford, a mental health and addiction services provider with Hartford HealthCare, received another $2 million grant to support and expand their work by launching MORR's new mobile outreach unit. 

"In the shadows of this community and every other community in Connecticut are people who are struggling with addiction, people who are fighting through recovery and who have not been able to connect themselves with resources that can make a difference," said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy at Wednesday’s conference. 

Other speakers at the conference included Meriden Mayor Kevin Scaparti;  Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz; Gary Havican, the president of Hartford HealthCare Central Region; Meriden Director of Health and Human Services Lea Crown; and Rushford's Director of Crisis and Community Programs Jessica Matyka.

What is MORR? 

An estimated 1,531 state residents died of a drug overdose in 2021, an 11% increase from the previous year, reported the state Department of Public Health. So far this year, 24 in Meriden have died due to an overdose, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

To address the crisis, the MORR program was launched in 2018 with a four-year federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant as part of the First Responder Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. 

The program is a partnership between Rushford, Meriden first responders and the city health department and works on a referral system. After first responders intervene in an opioid overdose, they submit a referral application to MORR on behalf of the client. A clinical team member contacts the individual to connect them with treatment services or other vital resources, such as housing, clothing and food. 

In addition, MORR clinicians provide training for first responders in crisis intervention, mental health first aid and the Question Persuade Refer (QPR) suicide prevention tactics. They also supply first responders with Naloxone, an opioid reversal drug more commonly known as Narcan. 

Meriden Mayor Kevin Scaparti said that wraparound services are necessary to address the opioid crisis, reduce stigma and provide support to those in need.

"We're not looking to arrest our way out of this pandemic of opiate overdoses," Scaparti said. "This is not something where we want to victimize individuals who truly just need help." 

Another aspect of MORR is its community outreach initiatives. Throughout the year, the city and Rushford host free virtual Narcan training sessions for Meriden residents and supply them with a free kit afterward. The MORR team also hosted Narcan trainings in public spaces such as festivals, train stations and COVID-19 vaccine clinics.

MORR previously reported that its collaborative tactics have been successful. In the program's first four years, first responders administered 560 doses of Narcan. 

In addition, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration staff interviewed the MORR team regarding best practices to learn how other health departments can employ them.

At the press conference Crown announced that 350 individuals have been referred to treatment services as a result of MORR. 

What's the new grant for?

Record-Journal previously reported that MORR's original funding stream expired in September 2022. To sustain the program, the Meriden Health and Human Services Department applied a $300,000 grant awarded by the National Association of County and City Health Officials for the Implementing Overdose Prevention Strategies at the Local Level program.

The latest grant is a renewal of the original funding and can finance the MORR program at $500,000 annually until Sept. 29, 2027. It will overlap with the grant provided by the health department through late January. 

Funds from the new grant plan will be used to build up a mobile unit, hire staff and expand services, Matyka said. 

"We are proud and excited to see the continued success of this partnership and are gratified to see many individuals are now on their way to recovery because of our combined efficacy," Matyka said. "The results are not just lives saved, but hope and progress toward healthier, happier and more fulfilling futures." 

Creating a mobile unit 

In addition to celebrating the new grant at the press conference, MORR introduced the latest tool at its disposal — a decommissioned ambulance from Hunter's Ambulance that is the program's new mobile outreach unit. 

Services include screenings, Narcan education, harm reduction supplies and other educational resources, Matyka said. The new unit also allows MORR clinicians to provide referrals to treatment, mental health, substance use and primary care.

Matyka explained that the mobile unit be strategically placed at various locations throughout the city with the highest overdose statistics. She said the ultimate goal with the new mobile unit is to build rapport and engage with members of the community who are hesitant to reach out. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic taught us many things, but one thing for sure is that we have to pivot the way we provide for the most vulnerable populations,” Matyka said. “So, instead of waiting for people to come to the door of the clinic, we're breaking down those barriers and we're bringing treatments to them in a safe and non-judgmental way." 

Matyka said they have yet to set a launch date for the mobile unit as they are working on hiring staff to operate the vehicle and stock it with supplies. 

Crown said that the health department's role with the mobile unit will be to provide MORR with real-time data on areas with repeated overdoses to deploy the mobile unit. She added that the department and Rushford are working with other local harm reduction and addiction treatment organizations that run mobile units to learn best practices. 

Havican said that it “takes a village” to provide comprehensive care. 

"It's going to help us on a continual journey to save lives in our communities and it's not just one agency, it's all of us together," he said. 

Need for more 

Several legislators took to the podium Wednesday morning to praise MORR's work and to highlight the need for more support on a federal level. 

Murphy praised MORR's proactive approach to recovery but recognized that many communities are still struggling to support residents. 

Meanwhile, Bysiewicz said that everyone can actively address the public health crisis by educating themselves on substance use and learning how to administer Narcan. She encourages everyone to have a supply of Narcan on hand, noting that she carries the medication in her state vehicle and her personal car. 

"You never know when you find someone who needs help," Bysiewicz said. 



Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.


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