A life-saving Bucks County program that helps shepherd overdose survivors into supportive care for long-term recovery has received an additional $650,000 in state funding through a public-private partnership with the Independence Blue Cross Foundation.
“This announcement is going to result in more Bucks County residents entering drug and alcohol treatment, and ultimately a healthier community for all county residents,” Jennifer Smith, secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, said at a news conference last week at the Bucks County Administration Building in Doylestown.
The additional funding will bolster the efforts of Bucks County’s “warm handoff” program, known as BCARES, which began in April 2017. The program works with the county’s six hospitals and area treatment programs to assist overdose survivors in moving from the hospital into recovery options, such as withdrawal management and rehabilitation.
A warm handoff takes place when a certified recovery specialist – typically someone who has experienced substance use disorder themselves – visits an overdose survivor to discuss treatment options.
“The time after an overdose is a critical moment for someone with opioid use disorder,” Smith said.
While fewer people are dying from overdoses because of the expanded use of Narcan, “a direct referral to treatment and support … are vital to helping them work toward recovery,” Smith said.
The added infusion of state funds resulted from a seven-month study conducted in 2017 by the Independence Blue Cross Foundation that examined warm handoff programs.
“What was compelling from the study was how Bucks County really stood out,” said Steve Fera, senior vice president for public affairs at Independence Blue Cross. “Every county’s different in Pennsylvania, but Bucks County really stood out in how it put together BCARES and worked with those in the treatment community and the healthcare community to come together and share and collaborate in innovative ways.”
A second study commissioned by the Independence Blue Cross Foundation will re-evaluate the program, track outcomes and provide additional recommendations. That study will begin in September.
The added money will help to expand around-the-clock coverage of overdose survivors by certified treatment specialists as well as to help support survivors’ families and help educate hospital staff about substance use disorders and working with affected families, said Diane Rosati, executive director of the Bucks County Drug and Alcohol Commission Inc.
Two innovations that are unique to Bucks, Rosati said, are BCARES’ Family Connect program, which helps family members commit to assisting and supporting a loved one who has survived an overdose; and a program in which healthcare professionals who are in recovery share their experiences with peers in hopes of reducing the stigma that many attach to substance use disorders.
An example of BCARES’ effect came when Ashley Eaton-Riley, a survivor of multiple overdoses, told of how a certified recovery specialist reached out to her in October 2017 after a heroin overdose.
Once a high school athlete and prom queen who graduated at the top of her class in Blair County, Eaton-Riley said she became addicted to opioids at age 21 after she was given Percocet for a wisdom tooth extraction. Six heroin overdoses, heart disease and seven years of treatment followed.
After relapsing and overdosing in 2017, she was revived with Narcan and approached by a Bucks County recovery specialist named Danielle, who worked with BCARES.
“I was embarrassed about the overdose, and Danielle’s compassion helped ease my anxiety about the situation,” Eaton-Riley said.
At first, Eaton-Riley did not want to enter treatment.
The next day, however, “I called Danielle, and she did answer the phone. I will never forget; it was a Saturday.”
That led to a 28-day program at a local facility, where she learned more about “why my brain was incapable of letting go of opioids” and the skills she needed to recover long term.
Eaton-Riley said she has been sober ever since, and today helps manage a local treatment facility, working with women who are struggling as she did.
The news conference was attended by all three Bucks County commissioners, District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub, a host of other county officials, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, state Sen. Maria Collett and state Reps. Meghan Schroeder and Wendy Ullman, along with representatives of Bucks County’s hospitals and recovery program providers Gaudenzia / Lower Bucks, The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania and Penn Foundation. ••