A panel of local people working on the frontlines to reduce the problem of opioid drug abuse gained access to the nation’s drug czar last week in a Pasco County roundtable session initiated by Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis, of Palm Harbor.
No certain solutions were offered during the May 3 discussion with for Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
But panelists and people in the audience identified several areas needing improvement
- The stigma surrounding drug addiction must be reduced
- Parents need education to help prevent their children from becoming addicts
- More tools and better access to care are needed to help people overcome addiction
- Residential treatment programs should not be limited to 28 days
- Innovative and creative approaches should be encouraged and shared
- More community support is needed to help those who have completed treatment programs to avoid a relapse
Panelists said they appreciated the opportunity to talk directly with Botticelli.
Doug Leonardo, executive director of BayCare Behavioral Health put it like this: “I feel like I’m sitting next to a rock star. For folks in the field, this is the individual who has the president’s ear on policies related to substance abuse for this country. So, it’s really a big deal.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that opioids – a class of drugs that includes heroin and prescription pain medications – were involved in 28,648 deaths in 2014.
“We don’t have our arms around addiction and it continues to get worse,” Leonardo said. “It feels like two steps forward, one step back, sometimes.”
Part of the answer lies in changing the perception about people with addiction problems, speakers said.
“We’re talking about a brain disease,” Leonardo said. “We don’t put people in jail for having diabetes.”
Reducing that stigma can help lead to earlier intervention.
“We all tend to look the other way,” said Kelly Mothershead, a panelist who lost her only son to a prescription pill overdose. “You don’t want people to think you have a child addicted to drugs.”
Decision-makers often don’t understand the scope of the problem, said Nancy Hamilton, president and CEO of Operation PAR, an agency that screens about 30,000 people a year in seven counties.
“We admit about 14,000 into our continuum of care and we have over 4,000 people who are medicated-assisted treatment,” she said.
She hears decision-makers say, “They had their chance at treatment.”
They don’t realize that people addicted to opioids relapse most often, Hamilton said. “So, they may need two or more bites of the apple to put all of their act together.”
Dr. Laura Bajor, a psychiatrist at North Tampa Behavioral Health, said she came to a clearer understanding of the problem when she was working in Boston.
“We had a lot of clean-cut kids coming back (from the war). Guys who had joined the Marine Corps out of Catholic school and had been Eagle Scouts and football players, coming back getting paper bags full of opioids at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center), showing back up in Dorchester and Southie (South Boston) and as soon as they ran out of the opioids, were targeted by heroin dealers that they had gone to high school with.
“It was a bit of an eye-opener to see such clean-cut guys overdosing and seeing their boot camp pictures in their obits and at their funerals.
“It really taught me that this is not a character issue or a class issue, it’s a human issue,” Bajor said.
The problem must addressed through enforcement and treatment, Botticelli said.
The Pasco County’s Sheriff’s Office agrees.
The law enforcement agency takes aim at the supply side, but also recognizes that it can’t arrest its way out of the problem.
It deals daily with problems caused by addiction.
The county jail is “probably the largest detox facility in the county,” said Capt. Chris Beaman, of the sheriff’s office.
It is working with BayCare to increase intervention.
When responding to a call, sheriff’s deputies sometimes encounter people who have hit rock bottom, Beaman said. “Maybe, at that time, we can get them to make the decision to get treatment.”
Parents need to learn what to look for and need advice on prevention strategies, and it should be offered at work places, so parents have a chance to receive it, Mothershead said.
“We have to educate before it happens,” Mothershead said.
More education is needed, agreed Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco.
“Right now, if there is any parent who doesn’t understand what SPICE is, and they think it’s something in their cabinet, we’re in trouble,” Nocco said. Abuse of SPICE, which are synethetic drugs, is growing.
Botticelli asked Leonardo to describe what he sees “as critical ingredients to get people to long-term recovery.”
Leonardo said ingredients leading to long-term recovery include some element of support, either family or someone like family; access to appropriate type of treatment for the individual; and, a supportive environment after treatment, he said.
Botticelli agreed: “We want a continuum of care, not just short-term treatment. This is a chronic disease and people need long-term care
“We have to make our communities safe and supportive for people in recovery,” said Botticelli, who has been in recovery himself for more than two decades.
Innovation and creativity are important, too, Leonardo said.
“Creativity is key because nobody is going to throw money at this problem,” Bajor said.
Closer collaboration would help, Bajor said. “We would love to network with other providers in the area to close some of the gaps that our clients tend to fall into.”
Botticelli asked Judge Shawn Crane: “What do you see as kind of the unique needs of veterans?”
Crane replied: “What we have really learned is that veterans respond better in groups of veterans.”
That’s because veterans have a unique set of experiences and a lingo that’s all their own, Crane said.
“When you are a Marine recon sniper, there’s not much of a job for you when you come back out of the service,” the judge said.
“I took people who were in Drug Court and put them into Veterans Court and into Veterans groups and they just flourished. They just felt so much at ease,” Crane said.
“We do need to look at these guys as being a little bit unique,” agreed Bajor, who was a Navy pilot. The North Tampa Behavioral Center has a program designed specifically for veterans.
“They push each other more than we push them,” Bajor said.
Published May 11, 2016