Safe houses for Springfield overdose patients might save lives
By Michael Cooper
April 14, 2017
Overdose patients who want immediate help often have nowhere to go, return to addictive environment, officials says.
The opioid crisis has worsened in Clark County and local leaders say the community needs more ways to reach addicts who overdose in hopes of getting them in to treatment much sooner.
Clark County has seen more than 480 overdoses this year, according to the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, including 19 in 24 hours last week. After a record 79 drug deaths last year, this year has already seen more than 40 suspected fatal overdoses — many of which involve illicit fentanyl that’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.
“This is the worst it’s been,” McKinley Hall Chief Executive Officer Wendy Doolittle said.
She’s proposed placing a therapist and peer recovery support specialist in the hospital’s emergency room to help addicts who want to seek treatment immediately.
She recently applied for a $168,000 federal grant for the project, but she said it likely won’t be awarded until September. The therapist position would likely cost about $70,000 annually.
“It’s a good idea, it’s just too far away,” Doolittle said. “The question is: How many lives do we lose in the mean time?”
She’s also seeking funding to open a safe house for addicts who overdose and don’t want to return to the same environment. The pilot project would about $180,000 to get off the ground for one year, she said.
“They’re going back to where they were,” Doolittle said. “I’m not even saying that once we did this, everyone would jump on board and stay. But you sure would be able to capture many more people than we are right now … It’s obviously a gap.”
Springfield needs to focus on providing resources immediately for people who decide they want to get clean, said Springfield Fire/Rescue Division Chief Nick Heimlich. The community must find a way to get them past the first withdrawal phase, he said.
“There has to be help right then, right there in the emergency department,” Heimlich said. “It has to be continual and it has to be supportive.”
An hour after her life flashed before her eyes, Vanessa Spencer had nowhere else to go.
The 23-year-old Springfield resident — now three months sober — overdosed on heroin last fall.
“I can’t explain the feeling,” Spencer said. “It was like a heavy, black darkness. I just kept thinking ‘I’m never going to see my daughter again.’ My mind was so conscious, even though my heart wasn’t beating.”
After being revived by paramedics with Narcan, she was transported to the hospital, where she stayed for about two hours. Then Spencer was back in the same environment. Despite wanting help, she relapsed a few days later.
“It was scary,” She said. “I knew there was a possibility that I would lose my life permanently and never have the chance to recover.”
The more points of intervention for addicts, the more likely they are to seek treatment, Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said.
“The ideas are good ideas,” he said. “Figuring out where to get the money is another step.”
People who overdose are leaving the hospital without treatment and are simply going back into the same environment they came from, Doolittle said, leading to more overdoses.
Springfield Regional Medical Center keeps track of how many people leave without seeking treatment, but doesn’t sort out overdose patients, spokesman Dave Lamb said.
McKinley Hall’s proposal would allow a therapist and peer recovery support specialist to speak with addicts, Doolittle said, helping them devise a treatment plan. The ER has agreed to follow a medication protocol to provide non-opiate comfort drugs to those people.
If beds are available, addicts can then go to treatment, she said. However, if there’s a waiting list for treatment, addicts will often be sent home.
A safe house would allow addicts a place to go for three to four days before they get into treatment or recovery housing, she said. The facility would need to be staffed 24 hours per day.
“The goal is to stay there until we can get you whatever it is you need, until we can get you to a place that’s safe,” she said.
‘They need help now’
McKinley Hall currently employs two peer recovery support specialists who seek out overdose patients a week or two after the incident, she said. The success rate for getting them into treatment is about 30 percent for the addicts they reach.
“We’re not there in the immediate crisis,” Doolittle said. “If we can get there in the immediate crisis, it increases your chances of getting that person to engage.”
Not every addict needs residential treatment, Doolittle said. McKinley Hall’s outpatient treatment program has more than 100 people in it.
“It’s not always about finding a bed,” Doolittle said. “It’s about finding a place that’s safe.”
Addicts looking to get treatment can wait four to six weeks to get into treatment, Families of Addicts Clark County Director Melanie Silvus said. Some Springfield residents have gone out of state to seek treatment sooner, she said.
It’s much easier for people who have private insurance rather than Medicaid, Silvus said.
“They need help now,” she said. “When they call and they say, ‘I’m ready, I need it’ … you have to find somewhere to take them.”
The idea of a therapist in the ER and a safe house can help first responders feel better about reviving someone, Doolittle said, rather than just seeing them put back into their same situation.
The Mental Health and Recovery Board could put together a proposal to seek alternate funding from other sources, including private money, Chairwoman Lauren Ross said.
“The comments I hear is: ‘We don’t see these folks get clean. We feel like we’re just dropping them off. How are we helping them?’” she said.
The amount of money needed to create a safe house isn’t unreasonable for a city the size of Springfield, Heimlich said.
A year ago, leaders from the Manchester, N.H., fire department pitched an idea to Mayor Ted Gatsas — open its doors to addicts who want to get help. They told them it could take 16 to 18 months to get off the ground.
“I told them: ‘You got three weeks,’” Gatsas said.
Addicts who come into any of Manchester’s 10 fire stations are taken to a safe house, Gatsas said, allowing them to get immediate help. They’re then taken to an addiction facility to receive treatment.
Since the program launched in May 2016, more than 1,500 have come to fire stations to seek help.
“It’s worked out better than any of us ever thought it would,” Gatsas said.
More than 470 people in New Hampshire died of drug overdoses last year, the majority of which were caused by fentanyl.
The program’s busiest day was the Father’s Day holiday, Gatsas said.
“Men finally realized it was time for them to get home to their children,” he said.
There have been no concerns with liability or people overdosing while at the fire stations, Gatsas said.
“There’s enough people with access to Narcan to bring you back to life,” he said.
Communities across the country have called Manchester hoping to emulate its program, Gatsas said.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “This is not the silver bullet, but the numbers are trending in the right direction.”
Spencer began using heroin when she was 16 years old and became addicted three years later. She used heavily until last October.
When she overdosed last year, she stopped breathing and was resuscitated by one of her aunts who knew CPR. She wasn’t brought back until medics used Narcan to revive her. She went into immediate withdrawal, she said.
An hour after being transported to the hospital, she was released. She went right back into the environment she came from, Spencer said. A week later, a group of peer recovery support specialists from McKinley Hall visited Spencer, offering services.
Spencer had to reach rock bottom before seeking help, she said. However if she would’ve been offered services from a similar addiction specialist at the ER, she may have sought treatment much sooner.
“I would’ve felt like somebody actually cared about the disease of addiction and valued me as a person, not just the stigma of an addict,” she said. “It would’ve made it a lot easier for me to get into recovery sooner.”
If a safe house were made available to the public, it may have shown Spencer a different way to live.
“I was surrounded by nothing but addiction,” she said. “It reinforced the idea of just ‘keep using.’ If there was a safe haven that could put the abstract idea that there is a different way, I feel that it would push people more toward recovery.”
$180,000: Estimate cost to operate a safe house for addicts in Springfield.
480: Approximate drug overdoses in Clark County this year.
42: Suspected drug deaths this year in Clark County.
About this series: Springfield’s Opioid War
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about opioid and heroin problems in Clark County in the past five years, including stories about multiple overdoses in one weekend and efforts to expand treatment options. This year, the News-Sun will take a deep dive into the community’s opioid epidemic and what local officials are doing to solve the problem.