Jails, Hospitals Have Become Front Lines In Ohio's Deadly Opioid Crisis

Dec 5, 2017

Opioid addiction is a statewide epidemic that’s reached every community. Because of this, hospitals, courts and jails have become the front lines of the battle against the crisis. Those nurses, doctors, judges and officers can act as a first point-of-contact that connect addicts to treatment. And advocates believe these programs fill in the gaps of connecting addicts to the help they need.

Sitting behind bars, dressed in a gray inmate uniform is Travis Orin of Columbus. He was arrested for not paying child support, but Orin faces a much bigger problem. He’s been addicted to drugs for seven years. “Once you start using a lot of times you just give up and you just feel like there’s no hope,” Orin said.

Hope is what Orin is starting to feel, because even though he’s sitting behind bars, the Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office has a program that connects Orin and other addicted inmates with treatment. The program uses medication known as Vivitrol, which has been proven to help opioid addicts. "They definitely know there’s a problem out there because for a lot times it’s the same guys in and out in and out but now they’re starting to get the Vivitrol shot they’re trying to send them to programs so they don’t come back cause it’s just a vicious cycle,” said Orin.

Lt. Gabe Carpenter leads the program. Not only are inmates connected to treatment, but a deputy drives them to the doctor immediately after they step foot out of jail.  “Because they’re faced with that question once they leave – oh my gosh, that craving comes back immediately as soon as that, the clang of the door, and they know they want it. And so we try to cut that part of it off to give them a little more support out the door,” Carpenter said.

This way of thinking is not just happening in jails. It’s in hospitals, where medical personnel try to identify addicts through a screening process, then connect them to treatment. It’s in courthouses where there are special court dockets for people who are brought in on drug charges. Those people can elect to receive treatment instead. These types of measures go by many names such as “integration,” “coordinated care” or, perhaps most commonly known, “intervention”.

"Treatment is extremely important and it's really important to find people who need treatment wherever they are," said Joshua Sharfstein, a director of the Johns Hopkins University’s public health school. He’s done extensive studies of what different states do to curb the opioid epidemic. According to Sharfstein, states with robust intervention programs are starting to turn the tide in the battle against opioids.

But he says jails and especially hospitals can do even more. Researchers from Yale found that the success of a treatment program can double if doctors administer that medication assistance such as Vivitrol or Methadone in the emergency room. "Unfortunately many hospitals don't offer that kind of treatment which is kind of crazy cause if you think about well if you had a treatment you could provide for diabetes in the emergency department well you'd expect every hospital in the country to do it and in fact they do," said Sharfstein.

Last year Ohio’s prisons enrolled 15,000 inmates into Medicaid so they could receive treatment once released. Special court dockets around the state helped more than 940 people get treatment and other services.

Lori Criss is with the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health & Family Services Providers. They represent the groups that deliver treatment. She says providing full, comprehensive treatment that actually pulls people out of their addiction requires every gap to be filled.“When a person is motivated and they have the capacity to take advantage of the opportunity of treatment available to them then that’s the time that we need to make sure we’re engaged with,” said Criss.

Back in Pickaway County, Carpenter says law enforcement have taken a hard look at their role and re-evaluated what they should to do to help people who may initially seem like criminals, but are also people who need help. “It’s a win-win for me because not only are they getting help, becoming a productive member of society but also I don’t have to see the revolving cycle, we’re trying to break it and right now that’s the best way that we can do it,” Carpenter said.

The same re-evaluation is what’s happening at hospitals and courtrooms too.

For Travis Orin, he’s seen the light of sobriety and felt the pain of relapse. But with his new treatment on the horizon, he feels this might be his way out for good. “There’s hope out there. Just stay focused," Orin said. "If you go to a meeting as soon as you get out, if you’re in jail or if you’re incarcerated, the first thing I would do is go to a meeting. Get a support group, get connected and stay motivated, it gets better it really does."

Part of the Pickaway County program includes enrolling inmates into Medicaid so they have coverage for the treatment when they get out.