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Addiction to blame for costly problems

| Sunday, June 1, 2014, 12:51 a.m.
Donald Brown
Donald Brown

Donald LeRoy Brown has saved three lives, yet he's struggled to save his own.

Brown and two others saved a pair of towboat workers from drowning in the Ohio River in January 2005. Four men had died, but the muscular Brown lifted George A. Zappone and John A. Thomas Sr. off the sinking towboat Elizabeth M.

For his bravery, Brown earned a Carnegie Hero medal.

Two years later, in 2007, Brown pulled a woman from floodwaters in Aliquippa, likely saving her life.

But the Indiana County resident could not rescue himself from a living nightmare of drugs and alcohol.

Instead, the heavy drinker and occasional LSD and cocaine user had to rely on others — drug treatment professionals — to save his life.

His is a success story in the bleak world of addiction.

Addicts by the millions

In 2011, there were about 22.2 million people in the United States 12 or older who were drug or alcohol dependent. In 2012, the number jumped to about 23.1 million, said Brad Stone, a spokesman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

About 867,000 Pennsylvanians were receiving drug or alcohol treatment in 2011. But only a year later, that jumped by about 13,000 to 888,000, Stone said.

Drugs are among the leading causes of death in otherwise healthy people — young and, increasingly, older — in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Since Jan. 1, there have been at least 125 confirmed drug deaths — most caused by heroin — in Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler and Westmoreland counties, coroners said.

Federal studies say the cost of medical treatment for those addicts was about $16.9 billion nationwide in 2011. In 2006, alcohol addiction alone cost the United States $223 billion in lost productivity, health care expenses, and law enforcement and criminal justice costs, according to the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy.

A related study claims that between 2000 and 2010 drug users spent about $100 billion annually on four illegal drugs: cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. Taxpayers pay at least $600 billion annually in drug costs related to crime, lost work productivity and medical care.

This year, only an estimated one in 10 addicts nationwide is getting treatment, according to Gary Tennis, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

“In Pennsylvania, we do a bit better, with one of eight getting help,” Tennis said.

Treatment options

There are at least 112 drug treatment offices and even more alcohol programs within a 40-mile drive of New Kensington. Those include methadone clinics using that drug to replace opiates such as heroin or OxyContin. In addition, buprenorphine or suboxone, two other replacement medicines, are used as well in abstinence or counseling-only programs in the region.

Nine doctors in the Alle-Kiski Valley provide buprenorphine treatment in Apollo, Harrison, Kittanning, New Kensington and Vandergrift. Other doctors are in Butler, Cranberry and Greensburg.

Of the 840 doctors statewide who provide such treatment, more than 60 are listed in the City of Pittsburgh alone.

Buprenorphine treatment programs are available at ARC Manor in Kittanning and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Butler.

The Valley's only outpatient methadone clinic, RHJ Medical Center Inc., is along River Road in Parks Township. It's a rural location with no nearby neighbors.

Local officials report no problems with the facility.

ARC Manor is in a Kittanning neighborhood a few blocks from the Armstrong County Courthouse.

“I've been here six years and haven't had any problems,” said Jeanette Bracken of Oak Avenue.“They helped me to stop drinking,” said Jonathan Delp, formerly of West Kittanning, who has lived along Oak Avenue across from ARC Manor for about two months.

ARC Manor has been a “good neighbor,” said Leonard C. Menelly, chief executive officer of the Progressive Workshop of Armstrong County at Oak Avenue. “We haven't had any issues or problems. They are a social service agency, as we are ourselves.”

Brown's treatment

Brown was in an ARC Manor inpatient rehab program for 21 days. Then, he started an outpatient program in Indiana County five days a week.

He goes twice a week.

“I've been clean seven months,” Brown said, “and, for the first time in my life, I have hope.”

And, he has plans for this fall.

“I have applied to Clarion University. They have a substance abuse counseling program where I can focus on substance abuse,” Brown said. “I want to help people.”

Brown is excited about seeing more of his 5-year-old son, Kristopher.

“I'm spending time with him, not the bottle,” he said.

Cheaper than jail

Critics of the treatment programs complain that some addicts only switch their drug of choice, getting hooked on methadone or buprenorphine instead of heroin.

Doctors say that's an oversimplification of the problem.

“Maybe 20 percent can overcome (opiate addiction) in the long term and get off methadone,” said Dr. Peter DeMaria, coordinator of psychiatry services at a program associated with Temple University.

That may be determined by genetic background and other factors.

Some people who have never been addicted think that opiate addiction can be treated almost as quickly as someone with strep throat, DeMaria said.

“With strep, usually 8 to 14 days of medication works,” he said. “Addiction is more like the treatment of diabetes. You can start insulin, but you wouldn't stop it.

“Opiate addiction is a chronically relapsing disease that usually can be treated if they maintain pharmaceuticals for life,” he said.The individual dose has to be carefully determined and checked. Then the patient can safely drive and work, he said.

Society must humanely and smartly treat addiction, DeMaria said.“It costs about $25,000 to keep one person in jail (each year) and about $4,000 to put them on methadone instead,” DeMaria said. “You can treat six addicted persons in an outpatient setting and start to prevent relapse.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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