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Opioid addiction hotline expected to be ready in two months

A new 24-hour crisis hotline should be up and running in about two months to help those struggling with opioid and heroin addiction.

That’s a key component of the new opioid crisis response plan unanimously approved by the Erie County Legislature on Thursday.

The $375,000 plan includes two parts: The establishment of a 24-hour hotline that can directly connect those suffering from addiction with services, and the hiring of an additional Health Department staffer to expand training for physicians and community members related to addiction and overdose treatment.

The hotline, the most expensive part of the plan, will be staffed by call takers with experience in substance abuse and addiction services or certification in substance abuse counseling, said Michael Ranney, the county commissioner of mental health.

“They’re going to be trained professionals in addiction care,” he said.

The hotline would be run by Erie County Crisis Services, which already operates a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline.

County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said that unlike other referral services, call takers on the opioid addiction hotline can do some baseline assessments and gather demographic data and any insurance information. From there, callers would receive further evaluation and be connected with the appropriate level of inpatient or outpatient services, she said.

Advocates say having a central clearinghouse of treatment options is critical to those suffering from heroin and opioid drug addiction, as well as their families. Some have recounted horror stories of addicted loved ones sitting untreated in emergency waiting rooms for hours on end, and parents calling a long list of referral phone numbers, looking for help for their children only to face repeated rejection and long waiting lists.

“Our overall vision for this is, in addition to assessing the person’s immediate status, we would evaluate the services they would be eligible for,” said Jessica Pirro, executive director of Crisis Services. “We want to capture them when they’re ready to get that help.”

Despite the perception that there’s a shortage of treatment services for those who need help, Burstein said there are more options than many people realize because they simply don’t know about them.

Both Pirro and Burstein said the hotline would connect those needing treatment not only with services within the county, but also services that would be available outside the county within driving distance. That would help address issues related to any shortage of inpatient substance abuse services available locally.

They also said that aside from inpatient services, many of those needing treatment could benefit from available outpatient services instead.

Pirro said Crisis Services already has the hotline infrastructure needed to get started, but that it will take eight to 10 weeks to hire one supervisor, three full-time employees and three part-time employees to fully staff the hotline.

Meanwhile, Burstein said the county already has begun combing Civil Service lists to hire another full-time health educator and fill a clerical position in the Health Department. The additional staff will enable the county to offer more Narcan training, track data and work with the countywide task force charged with developing a comprehensive plan to address the sweeping drug epidemic,which has been responsible for roughly 11 deaths a week in Erie County.

The additional Health Department staff should be hired in about a month, Burstein said.