There is precious little good news to report in the unrelenting opioid addiction crisis. So victories, when they occur, must be celebrated.
As Erie Times-News reporter Madeleine O’Neill detailed, a thoughtful, targeted program launched just over a year ago in Erie County is saving lives.
The warm handoff program aims to meet patients at the ground zero of addiction – the emergency department moments after a drug overdose – to offer them a path to recovery.
Treatment professionals are dispatched via a hotline whenever an overdose patient arrives at a local hospital emergency department. They offer to assess a patient’s needs and transition them into treatment. Safe Harbor Behavioral Health operates the program at UPMC Hamot, while Gaudenzia Erie offers services at Saint Vincent, Millcreek Community and Corry Memorial hospitals.
David Sanner, director of the Erie County Office of Drug & Alcohol Abuse, which oversees the program, reports that 33 percent of overdose patients have accepted some form of addiction treatment since the program began. Of the 466 reported emergency room visits for drug overdoses in the last year, 189 patients have agreed to meet with warm handoff staff for an assessment. Of that number, 155 people have accepted treatment.
The list includes patients like Tearia O’Neal, a Corry mother who was pregnant with her fourth child when she overdosed on heroin and wound up in the Corry Memorial Hospital emergency department in March. Thanks to the warm handoff program, she has completed five months of inpatient treatment and is receiving medication-assisted outpatient care to stay clean.
Unfortunately, other patients refuse to take advantage of the program. Sanner and his team are wisely tracking repeat overdose patients in hopes of targeting interventions toward them and making the program more effective. The lack of participation in the warm handoffs also might point to the need for officials to create other points of contact with local opioid addicts outside of the emergency department, especially since the 2017 death toll – 111 fatal overdoses as of Oct. 26 – continues to mount.
A state Senate bill proposes to mandate treatment for those revived with the opioid reversal drug naloxone. But O’Neal’s story demonstrates how difficult it is to sustain motivation for recovery. She said she knew she needed to stop using drugs to retain custody of her children. She also acknowledged that to follow through, she needed the daily support and hope offered by Paula Kelso, a clinician with Safe Harbor’s warm handoff program.
The program, by diverting 155 people from the crossroads of life and death into treatment, is giving the region one of the first wins it has experienced in this fight. With continued refinement, it holds promise.
— Erie Times News