More than 200 people have died of opioid and heroin overdoses in Erie County so far this year. That is on top of the nearly 400 who died of overdoses in the two previous years.
But now there is a hotline number to call and places to go for thousands of others struggling with pain medication addictions, and new steps intended to battle the spreading epidemic.
Starting 8 a.m. Monday, Erie County Crisis Services will launch an Addiction Line staffed 24 hours a day that can link residents directly to treatment providers.
And from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, many local police stations in Erie and Niagara counties will welcome addicts who walk through their doors and offer help instead of punishment.
The REAP program – Rapid Evaluation and Appropriate Placement – is clearly an ambitious one and involves local governments, law enforcement, treatment agencies and private and nonprofit stakeholders.
“The project we’re rolling out here in Erie County is bigger than anywhere in the country,” said Cheryll Moore, who is heading up the project on behalf of the Erie County Health Department.
Based on a program in Gloucester, Mass., the local program’s success doesn’t just rely on commitments from agencies, companies and public bureaucracies. It also relies on community volunteers, who will play a key role in supporting those struggling with heroin and opioid addiction from the moment they make the call for help.
These residents are called “angels,” and they will be available to meet with addicts at police stations and treatment centers on a moment’s notice.
“The angels are critical to this process at police departments,” Moore said, “to support individuals suffering through the withdrawal process so they do not leave, so they know they are not alone, that they’re kept as comfortable as possible.”
And the county needs a lot more of them.
Becoming an angel
Thomas McCarthy is one of 54 people who have agreed to be an angel. He knows how difficult is to travel the path of addiction.
McCarthy was an Erie County Sheriff’s deputy in his 20s when a 300-pound man he was arresting at a Bills game fell on his knee. The lingering pain from his injury was so great, he said, that he was eventually referred to pain specialist and physician Eugene Gosy and wound up on Percocet and Oxycontin.
“Before I knew it, I had become dependent, and then addicted to the medication,” said McCarthy, now a former deputy.
He doctor-shopped for pills, lost a good job with the U.S. Department of Justice, watched his fiancee walk out of his life, and wound up at home with his dad taking 50-60 pills a day. It wasn’t until a case manager referred him to an inpatient treatment program at Horizon Village in Sanborn that McCarthy managed to turn his life around.
“It was so hard for me to go from law enforcement and putting the bad guys in jail for drugs, and then becoming addicted,” McCarthy said. “I want people out there to know this could happen to anyone. And if it happens, there’s treatment out there, and it works.”
McCarthy, 33, has now been clean for two years. He has started his own crisis response service and has gotten 60 people referred to inpatient and outpatient rehab services, he said.
He also has volunteered to become an angel with the Erie County program.
Angels don’t have to have any background or experience in drug addiction. But they must undergo a background check and participate in a one-day training program. After that, they will be asked to meet addicted individuals at a police station or a treatment intake center. Their job is to keep suffering individuals occupied for up to a few hours – even with cards or coffee – until treatment arrangements are finalized.
“We were advised and trained to be there to comfort the person, to provide them with a glimmer of hope that you’re making the right decision, you’re doing the right thing,” McCarthy said.
For McCarthy, his encouragement will include the words, “I know exactly how you feel because I’ve been there.”
Fifty-four people have volunteered for the program so far, and the county Health Department hopes many more will step forward to make a difference. The Buffalo Police Department is playing a key role in organizing, screening and deploying volunteers.
Police station havens
The REAP program includes partnerships with 13 different police departments throughout Erie and Niagara counties. Each of these departments will instruct officers and staff to provide assistance to addicts who walk into their stations seeking help. That will involve calling the Addiction Line and getting individuals lined up with treatment services.
Of all participating police departments, six are ready to go this week: the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and East Aurora. Police stations in these areas are offering assistance to walk-ins from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, county health officials said.
Meanwhile, the county is providing more training to help local physicians understand and treat patients who suffer from chronic pain. One training session was held Saturday in collaboration with the University at Buffalo, all major health insurers, the Erie County Medical Society and local physician networks.
Another program, to be offered in September, will offer training to certify more local physicians in the use of Suboxone, an opioid treatment therapy.
24-hour addiction line
For many people suffering from pain and opioid addiction, however, it’s the new 24-hour hotline that will make the biggest difference.
After Debra Smith lost her son to an overdose in September, she went to a County Legislature hearing and recounted horror stories of some addicts sitting untreated in 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.
“If there was a telephone line that could provide immediate help for people who need it, I really think it would be a lifeline,” the South Buffalo resident told legislators back in November.
That time has come.
The 24-hour Addiction Line will be open to callers starting at 8 a.m. Monday. Though the hotline is not yet fully staffed, Crisis Services has provided additional training to their pre-existing Crisis Services hotline counselors so that they can help take calls.
“We’re ready to go Monday, although we are still looking for more specialized counselors with addiction, substance abuse, chemical dependency background,” said Crisis Services CEO Jessica Pirro.
The Addiction Line number is (716) 831-7007.
Unlike in the past, when information hotlines provided addicts and their family members with a list of numbers to call to find treatment services on their own, counselors on the new Addiction Line will be able to answer questions of concerned family members and provide meaningful advice.
More importantly, they can conduct initial screenings for addicted individuals seeking treatment and should be able to directly link residents with outpatient and inpatient treatment services locally and across the state.
“Having a 24/7 Addiction Hotline staffed by the appropriately educated personnel will give everyone in the community one-stop direction to addiction services,” Moore said.
Crisis Services still has hotline positions to fill, however. And the agency still is looking for one full-time supervisor with master’s degree certification in substance abuse counseling, Pirro said. The agency also needs three more hotline counselors for full-time and part-time work. Counselors would need to hold a bachelor’s degree and have a background in substance abuse treatment or prevention work.
Will it work?
REAP is an outgrowth of the Erie County Opiate Addiction Task Force, established in February, which brought together many agencies, organizations and community members under one umbrella to troubleshoot the complex problem of opioid addiction.
The task force, coordinated by the county health department, has been working for less than six months.
But whether REAP will succeed out the gate is an open question. Many police departments still don’t have the program running, and hours are limited at police departments that do offer it. The county needs to recruit more community angels. And Crisis Services needs to hire more hotline staff.
Moreover, it’s hard to tell whether the treatment capacity exists locally or throughout upstate New York to accommodate everyone who calls the hotline seeking treatment.
“There are going to be bugs in the system that we’re going to have to work out,” said Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. “When you go from nothing to something, there’s going to be a bottleneck, initially. There’s going to be a surge of people trying to get into services.”
But Smith, who lost her son and sees the potential for so many other lives to be saved, said she’s glad that the county and its community partners aren’t waiting to develop a perfect system. The need is too great now, she said.
“We asked and they heard us,” Smith said of community stakeholders. “So many people have come together to form a unified front to save this generation. Had it been 10 months earlier, my son would still be here.”