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Kristin Murphy, KSL

Utah offers immediate, paid treatment for opiate addiction with revolutionary program

By Wendy Leonard, KSL | Posted - Aug. 1, 2019 at 6:23 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — It took passing out and finding himself in the emergency room for a younger Jay Webb to finally take control of his life.

"Gradually, my life had spiraled until I reached a crisis point," the recovering drug addict said Thursday. Webb, who suffered a legitimate autoimmune condition for which medication was prescribed, was going back and forth between feeling completely worthless and feeling like he could do anything, with the help of an ever-increasing dose of prescription pain medications.

"To experience the level of peace and euphoria you had at first would require significantly more and more," he said. "And withdrawal brought on physical and emotional pain, extreme panic and this crippling anxiety."

Webb, now 31, quit his job because he couldn't function and his young family was on the edge of destruction.

"You never think it's going to happen to you," he said. "The trajectory I was on … would've led to nowhere good."

When Webb was taken to the emergency room four years ago, a second chance came unexpectedly in the form of another medication — buprenorphine, a different kind of opiate used to safely treat opioid addiction.

"I feel like I'm better than I was before. I can handle what life throws at me," he said. "I have no doubt it saved my life."

Dr. Peter Taillac, an emergency room physician at University of Utah Hospital, said at least 75 adults in Utah have been saved by the same or similar process in the last three months, with the help of the relatively new Opioid Bridge Recovery Program.

They're also twice as likely to show up to subsequent appointments and achieve sobriety, Taillac said.

The bridge program, which is supported by a grant from the Utah Department of Human Services Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, is the first of its kind in Utah and is unique because it provides direct access to proven treatment for substance abuse disorder.

A patient suffering with heroin or opioid addiction can go to the emergency room at University of Utah Hospital and receive a one-time, five-day prescription for buprenorphine or suboxone, be immediately connected with a peer counselor and is guaranteed an appointment at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute's Addiction Recovery Clinic, where a long-term plan for recovery can be determined.

"This will prevent them from feeling the symptoms of withdrawal from heroin or opiates," Taillac said. "It allows them to skip the next hit and figure out what is next."

The program covers the cost of one month of outpatient treatment for anyone who is uninsured, he said, adding "it's an opportunity to have the support they need to get off of the cycle of addiction they have experienced."

Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, which provides peer support around the clock, also provides patients with an overdose-reversal naloxone kit should an addict not yet be ready to quit.

"We'll be there for you," said Evan Fields, a peer recovery coach with the advocates group. "We just want to keep you alive until you're ready to get clean. We understand what you're going through."

And Fields, 31, has been there. Buprenorphine, he said, "played a huge role in my life."

A seven-year, intravenous heroin user, Fields didn't get help until his 1-year-old son was taken away from him and put into state custody.

"I had no confidence that I was going to succeed," he recalled on Thursday. "I lost my only reason for living."

With help from available medications, Fields is now a recovering addict and has been sober for five years. He has had to figure out life as a single dad, initially living in his mother's basement, but he has dreams of continuing his education and helping others who are going through what he did.

More than 456 people died of opioid drug overdose in Utah in 2017, according to the state's health department. It's happening at a higher rate than the national average, resulting in what's being called an opioid epidemic in the state.

The goal of the bridge program is to help stabilize patients by making buprenorphine immediately accessible, as well as follow-up treatment that can and has made a difference in people's lives.

Typical barriers to quitting opioid addiction include a lack of access, specifically to those medications that can help lessen the symptoms of addiction and withdrawal. It is usually because of a lack of insurance or geographical location, said Dr. Jeremy Thueson, medical director at the U. Neuropsychiatric Institute.

He said the bridge program is changing all that.

"This program can offer them no interruption in their treatment so they can get off the roller-coaster of intoxication and withdrawal," Thueson said, adding that without addiction, people can "redirect their energy to solving the other problems in their lives."

Taillac said the program has the potential to save more lives than anything else being done in the hospital on any given day.

"It's an opportunity to get your life back," he said. "The door is open — today, tomorrow, and the next day — whenever you're ready."

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