The opioid epidemic has shattered countless lives and ended many. Many efforts have been made to provide solutions for rehabilitation to addicts. But what about those who have been to the edge of death by overdose, only to be brought back? Narrow escapes, though they can be very effective as a wake-up call, rarely provide instant rehabilitation.
A new program in Pennsylvania called “Warm Handoff” directly transfers overdose survivors from the hospital emergency department to a drug treatment provider. The program, developed by the state’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), is designed to avoid merely giving survivors a phone number to call or setting up a subsequent appointment a day or two later.
“There is a very high risk of a repeat overdose in the period right after a person leaves the emergency room for a drug overdose,” says Gary Tennis, Secretary of the Pennsylvania DDAP. “Our aim is to avoid that risk by getting the survivor directly to treatment without hitting the street at all.”
The program approaches overdose survivors in much the same way as the survivor of a massive heart attack, Tennis explains.
The Benefits of Addiction Hotlines
An overdose survivor helpline, part of the larger, state-funded effort to assist the county in battling the opioid epidemic, operates 24 hours a day, 7 days week. This addiction hotline has been launched to connect people who have overdosed with on-call staff ready to guide them toward a recovery path.
The idea for the program came about as police across Pennsylvania have reversed more than 1,600 opioid overdoses since November 2014 with the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. “Many people who would have died are now being saved in the ER, but the protocol there has been to release people once they are stabilized, or at most given a card with a referral for treatment,” says Tennis, who is also Chairman of the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.
Warm Handoff case management teams immediately meet with survivors and their family in the emergency department to work with overdose victims “often at their most vulnerable point.” In the moments after surviving a near-death experience, many are at a humbling point where they are oftentimes willing to accept help.
The team works to convince the survivor of the need for treatment, provide a clinical assessment, and immediately facilitate transfer to a treatment program. (Though as with any hospital patient, overdose survivors have the legal right to refuse referral to treatment.)
Everyone is different, and survivors have different strengths and challenges to consider. Some are hiding habits while maintaining full-time jobs. Other addicts are homeless, with few people turn to. This rehab hotline provides a safety net that could mean the difference between life and death.
Alliance Medical Center, recently designated a center of excellence by the state, has added case managers and recovery specialists who will work hand-in-hand with the addicts who are oftentimes struggling minute-by-minute to avoid their next dose. The program and its drug addiction hotline are aimed at providing every opportunity available to addicts who want to kick their habits but don’t know where to turn, according to Pam Gehlmann, Alliance Medical Center executive director.
A key goal of the program is to ensure that healthcare professionals dealing with overdose survivors understand the intense shame and stigma that can accompany drug addiction. “We talk to them about treating these individuals with respect and caring, as people of value,” Tennis says.
Through the county’s drug and alcohol program, support is available to cover treatment costs even if a resident seeking help has no insurance.
With this support in place, overdose survivors won’t fall through the cracks anymore – unless they want to.