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Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital program helps addicts get into treatment

Renatta Signorini
| Friday, March 18, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

An addict who ends up in Excela Health Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg now has a better chance of landing in a treatment program to get on the road to recovery.

In the program being piloted by the Westmoreland County Drug and Alcohol Commission, the hospital does patient assessments and connects them with a case manager from Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services when an addiction is uncovered. In the past, the hospital would direct the patient to community treatment options but left it up to the individual to decide to follow through.

“It's been a real cultural shift,” said George Mizikar, director of behavioral health services at Excela Health.

In 19 months since the program started, about 36 percent of the patients identified as addicts have completed drug or alcohol treatment recommended after the hospital assessment, officials said.

“We needed to be able to be where the clients present” themselves, said Colleen Hughes, director of the Westmoreland County Drug and Alcohol Commission.

Officials hope to replicate the program in Excela Health's hospitals in Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant, Mizikar said.

Drug and alcohol commissions were required by the state to implement a plan by the end of February to help survivors of drug overdoses treated in hospital emergency rooms.

Plans had to include how an overdose survivor will be offered a referral from the emergency department directly to addiction treatment, time lines, and mechanisms for tracking referrals and refusals.

“Those who survive an overdose may overdose again, so it's critical that we do all we can to get overdose survivors into treatment,” said Jason Snyder, policy and communications director of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “Our goal is to save lives, get people the treatment they need and help them into lives of recovery from the disease.”

The department's requirement to get addicts from the hospital to treatment — called a “warm handoff” — is in response to a drug epidemic that's led to increasing numbers of overdoses and deaths, Snyder said.

In Westmoreland County, overdose deaths spiked 44 percent from 2014 to 2015, when 125 people died. In 2016, 12 people have died from drug overdoses and 17 more cases are being investigated, according to the coroner.

“We're in the midst of the worst overdose death epidemic this state and nation have ever experienced and the worst public health crisis of our lifetime,” Snyder said.

Westmoreland's drug and alcohol commission, as well as the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission, are going beyond the state requirement to help overdose victims by reaching out to all patients — not just overdose victims — who come to the hospital with addiction problems. But to succeed, the agencies need cooperation from medical staff to notice the signs of addiction and make a referral.

“It's really increased the availability of services, and we are educating medical staff about addiction,” said Nicole Salvo, case management supervisor at the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion agency. “It bridges the gap for patients with physical health concerns aggravated by their addiction.”

Agency officials have seen 64 patient referrals from Indiana Regional Medical Center and ACMH Hospital near Kittanning. The program began at the Indiana hospital in September and ACMH Hospital followed in January, Salvo said.

Of those referrals, 73 percent of the people met with a case manager at the hospital and 59 percent followed up with some kind of treatment, she said. The agency is planning to implement the same program at Clarion Hospital this summer.

In 2013, about 22 million Americans needed help to beat an addiction problem, and only about 2.5 million people went through with treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“In drug and alcohol, it's always the client's choice,” Hughes said.

At Westmoreland Hospital, 145 people were recommended for some level of addiction treatment out of 151 people who were evaluated since the pilot program was started in June 2014. The human services agency received 228 referrals between June 2014 and February 2016. The majority of the 55 people who went to treatment began within one day of being discharged from the hospital, officials said, and 52 completed treatment.

“When you're going to a hospital, you're going to get stabilized,” said Sue Soroko, director of intervention services at Southwest Pennsylvania Human Services. “They're not going in with the intention of going to a treatment facility.”

It can be difficult to convince a patient that they need help, said Kelli Nabuda, a drug and alcohol case management supervisor at the agency who can respond to the hospital when a referral is made.

“It's a rewarding experience to know that you helped somebody make a change in a positive direction in their life,” she said.

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374.

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