It is difficult to treat those who are suffering from an opiate addiction as they frequently turn down assistance regardless of the circumstances. John Brogan was a heroin addict who was hard to reach for years, having frequent interactions with the police and almost dying in a Burger King Bathroom in North Philadelphia from an overdose. He was brought back from the edge of death with a small shot of Naloxone, or Narcan, nasal spray and walked away from his near death experience to shoot up again. It took jail time in Christmas and some serious deep thinking about his daughters to turn him around, and he's been clean for five years now.
This type of tale isn't uncommon, but it tends to be one that Brogan uses when he uses Narcan to save others from heroin overdoses. He is a beacon of hope for others, utilizing his past experiences to bring a human touch to New Jersey's Opioid Overdose Recovery Program. This program is being piloted for the next years through the Department of Human Services and hopes to make drastic changes in the abuse of heroin and prescription opiate epidemic by utilizing former addicts to connect with still suffering addicts.
While there is high hope, it is uncertain if this sort of opiate program will be successful, due to high relapse rates numbering between forty to sixty percent after rehabilitation. Something must be done though as heroin and other opiate overdoses have been the cause of death of at least 325 people in Ocean and Monmouth counties since 2013. The age of the overdose victims show clearly that this crisis hits every generation, with victims between eighteen and sixty-five dying in that time period.
Five different counties that have been hit hard by the opiate epidemic are receiving state grants for the two year pilot programs. At least 12 recovery specialists who have overcome addiction, such as Brogan, will be on call for different hospitals. This support specialists will provide help to overdose survivors as they navigate the recovery process, offering assistance for at least eight weeks if not longer. In addition, there will be no charge to the patients for the treatment they received. These services will be available in Camden, Atlantic, Essex, Ocean, and Monmouth counties but there is interest in expanding elsewhere. Hunterdon County is not receiving funds under this pilot program, but there are plans to create a team of recovering addicts to support overdose patients in addition to other efforts.
Hunterdon County utilizes the START program (Steps to Action, Recovery and Treatment) to provide recovery information and treatment information and options to anyone who is arrested on drug charges. While it began as a service to those who were arrested, the Hunterdon police now carry this information in their cars to distribute to the public. They are itching to do more and are on the wait list for Naloxone training programs hailing it as a miracle drug that cannot be abused. However, while this miracle drug can save lives, it does nothing to stop people from using drugs in the first place. And it is nearly impossible to get opiate addicts to utilize current rehabilitation services. Out of the 150 overdose victims that utilize naloxone at one hospital, only two went to detox and they both left within two days.
There is a successful program called Anchor Ed in Rhode Island that provides recovery coaches to those who received naloxone. Of the 230 people they say in 2014, 191 entered into a long term recovery program of some sort. The use of former addicts is making a huge difference in the lives of these addicts and the program (funded by a Federal block grant) has been expanded to service nine hospitals while performing outreach at shelters. These sort of preventative measures can not only save the lives of opiate addicts, but it can save the state billions of dollars.
Based on national surveys of drug users over the age of twelve, there were over 740,000 heroin users in the US in 2013. The economic cost to society is estimated at $33 billion today, with modest calculations showing that number climbing to $54 billion or more in the next year. There is a need for programs that will be effective at stemming the tide of growing opioid addicts, and Brogon is convinced that the support of former addicts is the trick.
"They've got to be loved out of their addiction," Brogan said.