FINDLAY, Ohio (AP) — Communities ravaged by America’s opioid epidemic are starting to get their share of a $50 billion pie from legal settlements.
The majority of the funds are designated for addressing the overdose crisis and preventing further fatalities.
This could indicate a similarity between the appearance of certain locations and the surrounding area of Findlay. In this case, the traditionally conservative Hancock County has implemented a thorough approach centered on both treating and aiding in recovery by incorporating housing options, a needle exchange program, outreach personnel, and a community center.
Precia Stuby, the county’s addiction and mental health leader, emphasized the importance of community in the recovery process. She stressed the need for creating recovery-focused communities that offer support to individuals.
In 2007, officials alerted Stuby to the misuse of prescription opioids. Around that time, 14-year-old Jesse Johnson was prescribed the pain medication Percocet.
When the woman from Findlay became pregnant, she had stents inserted in her kidneys to treat infections and kidney stones. After taking opioid medication for seven months, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Later, she had surgery to remove the stents and stopped taking the prescribed medication, causing her to experience withdrawal symptoms.
Johnson, who is now 31 years old, recalled not being able to even hold his daughter due to the pain.
Johnson used alcohol, marijuana, and eventually cocaine and opioids from the black market to alleviate his pain.
At that point, officials in the county noticed an increase in the number of fatal opioid overdoses in the area. The system for recovery at the time only offered a limited range of outpatient services and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We were severely unprepared, similar to many other places in the country, for the opioid epidemic,” stated Stuby.
Between 1999 and 2020, there were 131 opioid-related deaths in the county. Throughout the entire country, the number exceeded 500,000. The county’s opioid death rate during this time was similar to the national rate.
However, the county chose a different approach than many other places.
Stuby explained that officials collaborated with the Addiction Technology Transfer Center, which is federally funded, to develop a strategy focused on promoting recovery. This plan was based on the community’s understanding that those struggling with addiction are part of their own family and friends.
Many elements of the county’s transformation, such as actively reaching out to individuals who had experienced an overdose, were already established about four years ago. This was sparked by Johnson’s near-death experience from an overdose. At that time, the crisis had transitioned from prescription painkillers to heroin and later to the even more powerful fentanyl, which is produced inexpensively in illegal labs.
The mother received notice to make arrangements for a funeral.
At the age of 27, Johnson managed to survive. However, upon being discharged from the hospital, her mother did not allow her to return home. Instead, she was sent to Findlay’s homeless shelter, with only hospital scrubs as her clothing.
At that location, a person in recovery who works as a peer support worker was able to locate her.
Johnson stated that the individual who was searching for him did not give up. She provided support and helped him through some of the most challenging weeks.
The financial resources obtained from pharmaceutical companies, distributors, and pharmacies will not adequately cover all necessary initiatives for harm reduction, treatment, recovery, and prevention in combatting the opioid crisis across the country.
However, it may be sufficient to initiate significant alterations to the initiatives.
Over the past ten years, Hancock County has received over $19 million in grants, mainly from the federal government. The rest of the funding comes from a county tax levy and the state. Health insurance covers the cost of treatment.
Similar to many other communities in the United States, this place has created a drug court where individuals can potentially avoid incarceration by focusing on their recovery. During a recent court session at the county’s historic courthouse, there was a round of applause as a woman moved closer to graduating from the program. The judge also required a drug test to be taken immediately to determine if a man could continue with the program.
Certain supporters advise communities against using settlement money for drug courts, arguing that there is not enough proof that they are effective and that individuals who relapse can face severe jail time.
According to Kerri Kostic, who had been addicted to drugs for three decades, the drug court program aided her in overcoming her addiction.
Kostic, who is now a peer support worker in a nearby county, expressed gratitude for attending drug court in Hancock County, describing their previous experience as an infinite, absurd, and unpleasant cycle.
At Stuby’s prompting, the University of Findlay initiated courses on addiction. These courses can result in a beginner-level certification for employment in this area, providing a partial solution to the shortage of workers in the recovery field.
There are three rehabilitation facilities and a communal space for individuals to participate in 12-step programs, engage in video games, or acquire crochet skills – along with a corresponding location for adolescents.
According to Meelee Kim, a social scientist at Brandeis University who assesses federal grants for the county, Hancock has a network that operates under a “no wrong-door” policy. This means that individuals who visit the recovery center can be smoothly referred to a treatment provider through personal connections between the two programs.
The concept, in line with experts’ suggestions for utilizing the funds from the settlement, is that individuals who receive proper support can overcome addiction. Each person who maintains their recovery is one less person at risk of a fatal overdose.
According to John F. Kelly from Harvard Medical School, the focus should not only be on helping individuals stop using opioids, but also on maintaining their recovery and improving their overall stability. His studies have demonstrated that support services for recovery, such as housing, community centers, and peer coaching, can be beneficial.
He expressed positivity for families to keep hope alive that their loved ones will achieve and maintain remission.
The initial approach is to ensure the survival of individuals who engage in drug use by implementing techniques referred to as harm reduction.
There’s evidence that the efforts are helping. After 28 overdose deaths from all drugs last year, Hancock County has three confirmed overdose deaths and five suspected ones so far in 2023.
The county initiated a program where needles are exchanged, offering materials to decrease needle sharing and the danger of HIV and hepatitis C. While these measures are commonly implemented in bigger cities, they are not as prevalent in smaller ones due to concerns from critics about promoting illegal and hazardous actions.
Earlier this year, the employees included safe smoking materials to assist individuals who use drugs in preventing burns and the release of harmful substances. However, they have since discontinued this practice due to objections from city officials.
In Hancock County, there are other methods being used to reduce harm, such as providing naloxone, a medication that can counteract overdoses, and test strips for detecting fentanyl and xylazine in drugs. Xylazine is a tranquilizer used in veterinary medicine that can potentially slow down the nervous system and lead to infections.
Stuby expressed a desire to provide naloxone to individuals released from jail, but law enforcement officials have not been willing to support this action.
Instead, the distribution of the opioid antidote occurs in another location.
The Family Resource Center’s quick response team creates lists of individuals who have survived an overdose or have a substance use disorder and are being released from incarceration.
In the afternoon, team coordinator Misty Weaver went to follow up on two individuals who had recently survived overdoses. The first individual, who had overdosed in a Walmart parking lot, provided a non-existent home address. The second individual’s door was answered by someone who said that the man had gone to a rehabilitation facility. Weaver left a bag containing various materials such as socks, naloxone, test strips, condoms, and information about other services.
After residing in Toledo, Christina McCarver underwent a 30-day rehabilitation program to combat her dependency on opioids. However, she experienced a relapse and returned to the treatment facility within 24 hours of her release.
The center was able to secure a spot for her at their Findlay location. Following the program, she then transitioned to a room at the recovery home for women. This proved to be a crucial aspect of her rehabilitation.
She stated that they hold each other accountable. Rather than discussing drugs with their “using friends,” they choose to encourage each other to attend meetings instead.
McCarver, who is 49 years old and has endured numerous overdoses and a life full of trauma, felt a sense of trust and purpose while being inside the house.
After residing there for eight months, McCarver was appointed as the in-house coordinator. After fulfilling this role for three years, she recently transitioned to a similar role at a home for mothers.
The homes, in residential neighborhoods, require people to be in recovery for 30 days before moving in. Rules include doing jobs around the house, attending mandatory meetings and events — and drug test requirements.
William Mull values having a sense of organization and a mentor, Cory Kinn, who has been in recovery for a longer period of time, in the men’s residence.
Mull, 38, stated that it is preferable to have someone who speaks from personal experience rather than just regurgitating information from a book.
In 2015, the initial development of the home was met with significant resistance from the community.
Following that, Stuby stated that she made a greater effort to keep both Findlay officials and the general public updated. The recent additions of homes have not caused any controversy.
Kinn used to work in construction, but now he is involved in recovery work after being incarcerated for a drug-related offense. He lives at the men’s recovery house and coordinates activities, while also helping clients who are dealing with the criminal justice system during the day.
At the beginning of his healing process, he expressed indifference towards staying alive. However, now he has created a fulfilling life that does not require him to seek an escape.
According to him and other individuals, the community would benefit from additional recovery housing.
It can be challenging for customers to attend scheduled probation meetings, medical appointments, 12-step meetings, and other necessary locations. In a widely dispersed area without access to public transportation, transportation can be a barrier for individuals without vehicles or driving privileges.
According to him, if they ask a familiar person for transportation, it could potentially be the “dope man” or a drug dealer.
In November 2021, after being in recovery for about a year, Jesse Johnson was invited by her mother to celebrate both Thanksgiving and her daughter’s birthday at her home.
The following day, Johnson shared that her mother had been hospitalized due to COVID-19 and unfortunately passed away within a few weeks.
Despite the challenging time, Johnson remained drug-free.
Johnson reflected, “I occasionally contemplate why I didn’t revert back to what I was most familiar with.”
Instead, she has persisted and formed relationships she never thought possible. She lives with her 16-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, and frequently spends time with her two other sons who reside with her stepfather.
In the beginning of the year, she began working for the Family Resource Center, which also employed the peer support worker who played a crucial role in her own recovery. She is now assisting inmates in jail and individuals outside of the facility.
“I have always wanted to do this,” she stated, “because I aspire to be the person who reaches out to others and helps them during their darkest moments.”
Johnson filed a report from the state of Washington. The article also received contribution from AP video journalist Patrick Orsagos.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group provides support to the Associated Press Health and Science Department. The AP is solely responsible for all the content.