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As Heroin Overdoses and Deaths Rise, Is More Legislative Action on the Horizon in New York? June 2017

As Heroin Overdoses and Deaths Rise, Is More Legislative Action on the Horizon in New York?

Jim Malatras, Rockefeller Institute of Government [1]

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As the 2017 New York legislative session comes to a close, it was recently reported that the executive and legislature have been attempting to finalize another package to combat the growing opioid crisis. Over the past several years, including this year’s state budget, the state had adopted various programs, policies, and laws to combat the problem in New York.

Recently, the Rockefeller Institute of Government released The Growing Drug Epidemic in New York. Using federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the report found that drug deaths increased 71 percent from 2010-15 in New York. The report, in part, spurred additional activity from law enforcement and policymakers, especially in one specific area: heroin.

All across the country, governments continue to grapple with drug addiction, especially synthetic opioids and heroin, and in New York State opioid-related overdoses continue to rise. In 2013, the New York State Department of Health (DOH) found on average there were two deaths a day in New York from heroin overdoses.

Using recent provisional DOH data that has more specific information about synthetic opioid and heroin use in New York State reported by counties, there have been significant increases in opioid-related deaths in New York State. The data show that no area of the state is immune from the ravages of drug misuse and people living with addiction. Looking at indicators — including use of anti-overdose medication, hospitalizations, and even death — shows that New York is still grappling with this problem. And as the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s recent report pointed out, New York is hardly unique — this is a national problem though other areas of the nation face an even larger problem.

Overall, the data show that the state’s heroin problem is widespread, hitting different regions (e.g., rural/urban, upstate versus downstate). The number of outpatient emergency visits, hospitalizations, and death are up across the board because of heroin. The provisional DOH data show that heroin overdose deaths increased 54 percent, the number of outpatient emergency department visits increased 50 percent, and hospitalizations increased 13 percent.

A note of caution on the DOH data. Given it’s provisional, the current numbers haven’t been finalized. Moreover, the DOH has previously stated that the numbers may be underreported so data from these quarters may change as the data become more complete. As the reporting systems and processes improve in some counties, the numbers could also change from year-to-year[2]. However, the DOH data does take an alarming snapshot of the current problem.

Just looking at the provisional data show that the problem crosses the entire state. In terms of crude death rate (i.e., the number of deaths for every 100,000 people within a county), Lewis County reported the most heroin deaths in 2015, followed by Sullivan, Allegany, Greene, Essex, Orange, Cayuga, Chenango, Suffolk, and Dutchess counties.

For emergency department visits, Erie County has the highest rate, followed by Broome, Niagara, Onondaga, Schenectady, Oswego, Suffolk, Sullivan, Dutchess, and Chautauqua counties.

Moreover, there has been an increase in the administering of anti-overdose medication. Naloxone, also known by designer drug names, such as Narcan, is a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, including heroin. It is an important way to prevent overdose deaths in that it reverses an overdose by blocking opioid receptors in the brain for up to 90 minutes.

In 2006, New York State expanded those able to administer the drug, specifically nonmedical individuals, to try to prevent drug overdose deaths. Per DOH data, for the latest years available, in one year alone there was a 45 percent increase in the number of times the anti-overdose drug was administered statewide. Outside of New York State the increase was 30 percent and in New York City the increase was 64 percent. While more individuals are getting life-saving treatments, the data appear to reinforce that overall there is an increase in heroin use.

There is more work to be done to address the crisis and policymakers are undoubtedly focused on curtailing the epidemic. As a new legislative package may come together in the remaining days of the legislative session, it’s incumbent upon researchers to help focus on those strategies that are working and that can move the dial, including getting more accurate data for policymakers. Collectively, we still have work to do to help lawmakers find solutions and that is an effort that the health policy researchers at the Institute are undertaking now.



[1] I wish to thank Urska Klancnik, research scholar at the Rockefeller Institute, for her help and assistance with data collection for this post as well as Erika Martin and Thomas Gais for their invaluable comments.
[2] For the limitations in the data, see New York State - County Opioid Quarterly Report For Counties Outside of New York City Published January, 2017 (Albany: NYS Department of Health, January 2017): 5-6,


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.