Heroin addicts could go to treatment instead of jail under new program

More than 200 have died in Montgomery County already this year from overdoses, on pace to be most ever.

A new program will try to stop the revolving door where heroin addicts find themselves in trouble with the law, in jail and back on the streets only to repeat the cycle.

The Front Door Initiative aims to push heroin and fentanyl users who come into contact with police – typically through emergency overdose calls — into outpatient treatment immediately instead of jail. The program will be voluntary.

“This is on-demand treatment where the officer will transport them to addiction services or one of us will show up at the hospital to help them with addiction services,” said Bruce Langos executive director of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Intelligence Center, “Grabbing them right away is the purpose.”

The four-week Front Door program has never been more urgent, said Sheriff Phil Plummer, who laid out a stark reality: 808 overdose calls so far this year in the county and more than 200 deaths. All of last year, 259 people died of drug overdoses.

The number of 2016 deaths will almost surely eclipse the previous worst year, 2014, when 264 people died of drug overdoses. Of those 2014 deaths, 190 proved to be from either heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two.

Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger said Tuesday the office is “completely overwhelmed” with so many cases and would likely not have conclusive results from April deaths until August. “Numbers and deaths are out of control,” he said.

The Montgomery County Drug Free Coalition-led Front Door effort involves partnerships between the coalition, the Dayton Police Department, East End Community Services, the sheriff’s office and other community partners, including Cornerstone Project, which provides the outpatient treatment at several locations, including in east Dayton, where the region’s heroin epidemic is most acute.

“If we don’t get them to services then we basically lose them until the next crisis event,” said Keith Vukasinovich, Cornerstone Project managing partner. “The next crisis event can be fatal for them. So we’ve got to take advantage when the situation presents itself.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, who joined Plummer and Vukasinovich Tuesday at the Sheriff’s Office to introduce the program, said the state and county were “in a crisis mode” when it comes to fighting opioid addiction and praised the effort as “cutting edge.”

“I do hear this frustration about the fact that police officers, and for that matter, our firefighters and other first responders out there using Narcan are assisting the same people again and again,” said Portman, who has co-sponsored Senate legislation to combat the heroin epidemic.

The heroin crisis is front-and-center in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race this year. Portman’s opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland’s campaign has criticized Portman for not doing more sooner.

“Senator Portman is bragging about drug abuse prevention efforts that he actually voted against funding, said Liz Margolis, a Strickland spokeswoman. “As President Bush’s budget director, Portman supported slashing drug abuse prevention funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. Preventing drug abuse is serious issue, which is why it is so unfortunate that Senator Portman is practicing exactly the kind of D.C. double-talk which frustrates Ohioans about the dysfunctional politics of Washington.

Front Door already has people enrolled

Front Door has enrolled 54 people since it rolled out first May 26 on Dayton’s east side. By the end of this month, nearly every Dayton Police officer and Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputy will have been briefed on the program which by then will provide true 24/7 intake, said Cornerstone’s Wendie Jackson.

Montgomery County Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Brem said any user can request the program by talking to a law enforcement officer. Though some might not be allowed to go directly into treatment, he said.

“Some of it can be officer’s discretion. But at the same time you have to look at what they have on them — a warrant or something we don’t have any wiggle room on,” Brem said. “But if they’re making efforts to get the treatment … we can make sure they get the treatment instead of going to jail.”

Vukasinovich said the four-week outpatient program costs about $5,100 and is paid through Medicare reimbursement to Cornerstone. Some pay $850 a day for a six-day in-patient detox program.

“I don’t think it takes a lot of gray matter wrestling to figure out it’s a more cost-effective intervention to get a month of services for the person,” he said.

Vukasinovich said the services include intake, four individual counseling sessions, four hours of work with physicians and nurses, cost of sober housing, nine hours of intensive outpatient each week, eight hours of case management, 12 drug screens, online monitoring.

An inmate at the county jail costs about $62 a day, or $22,630 a year, Plummer said. About half of the 900 inmates have opioid use disorder.

“The inn is full,” he said.

“The most frustrating thing we experience is a parent saying ‘I can’t get my kid into treatment. Now we have a place to start.”

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