County joins addiction recovery pilot program

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BENNINGTON — Bennington County has become the third Vermont county to take part in a pilot program that partners addiction treatment centers with local hospitals, to provide recovery coaches to those who arrive in the emergency room after an overdose or other drug-related event.

The Peer Recovery Coaches in the Emergency Department Program sends recovery coaches from community recovery centers to the emergency departments of several of the state's largest hospitals. In Bennington, this program involves the Turning Point Center of Bennington and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

People who come to the emergency room experiencing an overdose or another substance-related issue are quickly connected with a certified and trained recovery coach who helps them get on track to recovery. These coaches, who are on-call 24/7 on a rotating basis, are also in successful recovery from their own addiction-related challenges.

This program was introduced by the Department of Health in close collaboration with three of the state's Turning Point Centers, hospitals, and the Vermont Recovery Network. A $643,000 grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) kickstarted funding for this program.

"This innovative effort takes recovery intervention to a new level," said Vermont Commissioner of Health Mark Levine, MD. "By being there when the moment of need is greatest, the recovery coaches play a critical role in helping individuals avoid another overdose and engage in treatment."

While the current program runs through early 2019, health officials say that the early results of this program are promising, and they plan for it to continue. By mid-2019, the program is expected to expand into at least three additional Vermont communities.

In addition to Bennington County, Chittenden and Washington counties have been participating in this program since July 2018.

These coaches work with individuals both during the hospital visit and after they've been discharged by helping them find the best treatment services and recovery support for their situation. Additionally, the coaches provide guidance on obtaining and using naloxone and can also help the individual with finding housing and other needs.

"Recovery from substance use disorder is not a simple or straight path," Levine said. "Access and support are key. These coaches can make the difference in people being able to begin, succeed, and maintain their recovery."

Turning Point

Turning Point's peer recovery coaches are not clinical doctors; they are people who have walked their own path of addiction in the past and strive to help others emerge from their struggles with substance abuse.

Turning Point currently has six recovery coaches at this point, said Turning Point Director Kenneth Sigsbury. These coaches have all received hours of training and education to be in this position. Agencies that work alongside Turning Point are working on developing certain standards for this training, and Sigsbury hopes for a peer recovery coach certification to soon be developed.

"Peer recovery support — it has a tremendous value in our eyes," Sigsbury said. "We're starting to be recognized within Bennington County and even more so within the state now."

Sigsbury, who is also in recovery, believes the benefits of peer recovery coaches are vast because it helps patients be more honest and feel more comfortable talking about their own struggles. When someone is dealing with an addiction, speaking to physicians can be daunting, Sigsbury said.

"If you're talking to a peer you understand that person has walked that path," Sigsbury continued. "We've all been involved in the addiction issue so we truly understand, and we can truly empathize. And that gives [the patient] a comfort level."

Recovery Coach Supervisor Julea Larsen says the program is already saving lives and Turning Point is already receiving positive feedback for its involvement.

"My coworkers really are able to provide so many resources and hope and support for people that didn't even realize it was there," she said. "[This program] is an amazing opportunity to help so many people. I've seen people's lives turn completely around."

Larsen says she has seen multiple individuals who have gotten help who are past the 45-days-clean mark and are thrilled that their lives are coming back together.

"They're beginning to realize this one trip to the emergency room has changed their life," Larsen said.

In addition to Larsen, the local peer recovery coaches are Lindalee Hayden, Justine Fortune, Doug Davison, Tom Haley and Tracy Mattison.

Turning Point, which began in January 2017, offers a safe and welcoming environment for people in all stages of addiction recovery.

"When we first started...we had one grant we were working with, and now we have four," Sigsbury said.

A unique aspect of this recovery center is that those who run it have also experienced their own journey through addiction. The center offers help with housing and can provide people with addiction various community resources to help them. One of Turning Point's goals is to bring recovery housing to Bennington.

In addition to the Peer Recovery Coaches program, Turning Point offers other resources like an intensive driving rehabilitation program and the Pathways program, which collaborates with opiate treatment centers and physicians who provide help for people seeking medication-assisted addiction treatment.

Chittenden and Washington Counties were chosen for this program last year, and after talks with Deputy Commissioner, Division of Alcohol and Drug Programs Barbara Cimaglio, Bennington's Turning Point made the cut to be the third host of the program in July 2017.

"It was slow-starting because it was new to everyone — kind of like building the airplane as we've been flying it," Sigsbury said, describing the program's inception.

However, it has worked out "very well," and Turning Point has gotten compliments from SVMC as well as patients it has helped.

"In some cases, we're able to get them treatment before they're released from the hospital— which is great because in a lot of cases people are homeless and have no place to go," Sigsbury said. "If they go back on the street, there's a likelihood they get back into drugs and alcohol."

Bennington Turning Point coaches met with 19 people in August, and Sigsbury believes September numbers are shaping up to be higher.

"We have not missed a single call," Sigsbury said.

SVMC

As an emergency room physician, SVMC Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer Dobson is one of the people responsible for contacting the recovery coaches when there is a patient in need.

Prior to this partnership, a patient in the ER may have asked for help with addiction, but Dobson says the resources were limited and it takes a long time to be admitted into a recovery program.

"It takes a lot of effort and continual phone calls and work to get these patients in a treatment center," Dobson said.

After being contacted, a recovery coach will appear at the hospital within 15 or 20 minutes, said Dobson, and they will meet with the patient and figure out what resources are available and what course of action is best for the patient.

"It's been amazing for people," Dobson said. "It can take weeks to get a patient into a suboxone program, and that's way too long. We need to get people in immediately,"

So far, Dobson has received favorable comments about the program. Patients who he normally would have had to send home with a list of treatment center phone numbers are now getting direct, instant help.

While Sigsbury is excited for Turning Point's opportunity to build a relationship with SVMC, Dobson says the hospital is also happy to work more closely with community resources.

"[The program] benefits the hospital by going towards our mission and vision, which is to take care of the people we serve here," Dobson said. "It certainly reduces [the patient's] disease burden because addiction leads to so many medical issues. It's all preventative."

If you or a loved one is seeking help for an alcohol or drug addiction, here are some resources that may help:

healthvermont/gov/alcohol-drugs/help

Turning Point Center of Bennington

425 Main St., Bennington

802-442-9700



Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.

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