Grant to help Opioid Action Team streamline access to treatment

New London — Right now, most people who struggle with addiction in the region turn to Google when they want to seek help.

Maybe they type in “New London addiction treatment.” Or perhaps they try “detox programs near me.”

What results is a confusing mishmash of websites — there’s addicted.org, sobernation.com, detox.net, the list goes on — featuring incomplete directories of places that offer addiction services. It’s not clear when the sites last were updated, or if any of the places listed have availability.

“There’s not a coordinated system,” said Kelly Thompson, president and CEO of Alliance for Living. “It’s research on the internet and calling around to figure out how to get access to treatment.”

Sometimes the time-consuming process leads people to change their minds. Other times they overdose before they can get the care they need.

With the help of a new $135,000 grant, the Opioid Action Team of Southeastern Connecticut is hoping to change that.

The award, obtained by Ledge Light Health District, is one of 13 handed out by the University of Baltimore, which in turn received the money from the federal government. The university sought communities that would prioritize evidence-based practices and partner with law enforcement in addition to public health agencies.

“It pretty much screamed our name,” said Jennifer Muggeo, Ledge Light’s supervisor of administration, finance and special projects. The action team has been meeting for about a year, and representatives from several different disciplines participate.

“That said,” Muggeo added, “we were surprised and honored when we were selected.”

According to Thompson, the group is looking to create a specialized system for addiction and recovery services that is similar to what 211 does for those who are homeless in Connecticut. If you call 211, you’ll be directed to the nearest housing option that is available and makes sense for your situation.

With the local model, the action team will have a few trained recovery navigators manning the phones. They’ll assess how far into addiction each caller is and build a relationship with them. Because of their position as the go-to people for treatment, the navigators will have special access to a variety of local providers. When a person says they’re ready for treatment, the navigator will be able to get it done — no phone tag or weekslong wait time necessary.

Several area providers already have agreed to participate in the endeavor.

Carol Jones, an Alliance for Living employee who will be doing recovery navigation work, said the team will put emphasis on medication-assisted treatment, a method that is more quickly available and has better results than the cycle of detoxification, then treatment.

Jones said some users still aren’t aware of how quickly medications such as Suboxone, which reduces the symptoms of withdrawal, can improve their lives — especially when paired with counseling and therapy. Others, she said, believe they aren’t truly sober if they need a medication every day — a flawed view shared by many outside the addiction community.

It’s a standard that doesn’t exist with other chronic diseases, many of which are regulated with medication.

“Medication-assisted treatment works,” Jones said. “A lot of times people are not open to it … but if they look at the numbers, they’ll see a much better outcome.”

Countless studies have shown medication-assisted treatment reduces the risk of overdose death and criminal activity and keeps people in treatment longer. Those who detox and opt not to aid their recovery with medication, on the other hand, see relapse rates as high as 90 percent.

Thompson said recovery navigators won’t drop out of the picture when someone gets placed into treatment. They’ll be accessible throughout the recovery process and help with other services a person may need along the way, such as job training or housing.

Muggeo pointed out that researchers with the University of Baltimore will be overseeing the work of all 13 communities. By the end of the grant period, she said, the goal is to have a toolkit of best practices that can be replicated elsewhere.

In other words, if New London’s model pans out, it could be expanded throughout the state and beyond.

“The grant funds afford us the ability to build the system,” Thompson said. “We’re going to need more resources to expand medication-assisted treatment and to expand the technological pieces of this, but this is a great start.”

The grant also calls for an expanded partnership with city police and other first responders, who often are the first to notice when there’s a rash of overdoses or a new drug in the area.

Those involved additionally will be educating the community on how addiction alters the brain and how language continues to stigmatize those with addiction.

“I hope that by end of the year, we will have improved our community’s capacity to support people living with substance use disorder and we will have created change … so that locally this is acknowledged and responded to as a chronic disease and not as a character flaw,” Muggeo said.

'You don't have to die'

Jeanne Milstein, the city’s human services director, said the team actively will outline goals and monitor outcomes to see which services, supports and treatment modalities are working.

“For five years, my statutory responsibility was to review the unexplained fatalities of children under 18,” said Milstein, formerly the state’s Child Advocate. “The real goal was to develop ways to prevent other tragedies from occurring — and so many are preventable.”

“It’s like having opioid addiction,” she continued. “If you get access to the right treatment, the right support, the right environment, you don’t have to die.”

Few know that better than Jones, who’s 29 years into recovery from heroin addiction.

“People wrote me off years ago,” she said. “People said, that’s it, it’ll be death or jail for the rest of your life. But look at me: I have a career. I am more than the things I have done in my life.”

Thompson said she has been active in the public health realm since early in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when she worked with ACT UP. Back then, the government was slow to fund medical research or even acknowledge the problem. The community as a whole shunned those living with HIV or AIDS for the choices they had made. In 1995, the peak year for deaths, almost 51,000 people died.

Thompson sees parallels in the ongoing epidemic, which last year killed more than 60,000 people.

“We lost a generation of people to the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Thompson said. “We can’t afford to lose another generation.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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