August 15, 2019

Experimental jail programs gets national attention, saves local lives

Christopher Poulsen

BENTON COUNTY, Wash. — The numbers behind America’s opioid crisis are daunting, with addiction destroying millions of lives in the last decade alone.

An experimental program happening right here in the Tri-Cities is making waves nationally, turning the tide and saving lives.

That’s how Roseanne Lotts describes the last five years of her life.

Roseanne is an addict in recovery, and she tells Action News she lost everything to drugs.

“It starts out innocently, but it goes downhill quick,” she says. “At some point you just become numb to everything. With opiates, even when you want to stop you cant.”

She says everything changed three months ago when she found herself locked up in Benton County jail.

Now the Hermiston mother says she's preparing to go back to school and eventually even law school.

Despite being filled with hope for a better future, hers is the face of addiction.

“One-quarter of my jail is addicted to opiates,” says Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher. “The second they leave the jail, they're right back in it. I've seen them use in the parking lot."

Hatcher says he'll never forget the moment he knew something had to change:

“I had a young man look right at me and say, ‘I’m dying,' and I thought to myself, ‘He's dope-sick, he's going through withdrawals, as happens a lot. He died that night."

The sheriff says it made him realize he "can’t incarcerate [his] way out of the opioid crisis".

“We’ve got to do something different," he recalls. "They're not throwaway people."

Hatcher was prepared to search the entire country for a solution; in reality he only had to take a five minute drive across town.

Tri-Cities is home to the headquarters of Ideal Option, an addiction medical treatment program.

Co-founder Jeffrey Allgaier, M.D. claims it’s the largest this side of the Mississippi River.

“This is a true disease,” the doctor explains. “It’s not a moral-failing and the science has proven that. It’s not up for debate anymore.“

Allgaier says the problem dates back to the 1990s, a time when emergency room doctors prescribed painkillers like candy.

“We were a big part of the problem,” he says. “The substances we were using were actually causing people to die and become addicted.”

Dr. Allgaier says medical professionals do better now, after learning the hard way.

Hatcher says he hasn't always been so forgiving.

“I came from, ‘It’s all about accountability. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time’.”

He says working with Benton County’s Drug Court changed that.

We don't just throw away the keys on people, especially when it's a disease: we're going to try to help them.

On January 31, 2019 Ideal Option enrolled 28 inmates in an experimental program called ‘medication assisted treatment’, or MAT.

“You go where the problem is,” Allgaier said. “The idea is to have evidence-based treatment including not just the medication but your wraparound services and do all of that together."

He says historically law-enforcement and addiction-treatment specialists have been at odds, but Sheriff Hatcher was willing to get creative and it's starting to pay off.

“They've been willing to look at the evidence, listen, and work with medical professionals; actually partner together," Allgaier says.

Roseanne Lotts says people just like her are benefitting from the different approach; relatively new to this part of the country.

"I remember making a promise to myself," she recalls. "I said, ‘Okay, when I go to jail I’ll go through the withdrawals and I’ll seek help there'."

The beginning of Rosanne's third stint in jail worked out a little differently: she didn't have to seek the help, one day it just showed up.

The team from Ideal Option were part of the intake process and after blood tests (standard for all inmates during entering the jail) confirmed there were drugs in her system, they were there to help.

They offered her Suboxone, a drug blocking the body's opiate-receptors, minimizing withdrawal and cravings, something experts consider two of recovery's fiercest enemies.

Dr. Allgaeir explains:

“[It feels like] you have a firehose of freezing cold water on you, but a couple of seconds later you're in a fire. It's an agony that can only be relieved by taking heroin or another opioid."

The MAT program starts inmates on medication as soon as possible, clearing an addict’s system in order to clear their mind.

The program shows inmates how the benefits of staying clean outweigh compare to the perceived benefit of using.

“That's a key difference,” the doctor says. “We're able to take those patients and help them when they get out of jail by treating them when they're still in the jail."

Ideal Option also helps inmates transition back into society, taking on roadblocks like mental health, housing, financial and legal problems.

“I had to seek help [but] they made it easy because they'd already made the appointment for me. I just had to show up," Roseanne says.

Hatcher says it’s about holding people accountable while getting them help.

“She wanted it, she just needed the structure to do it,” he says. “We're able to provide that and she's a success story. We're having a lot of those."

Though still in its infancy, Hatcher thinks the MAT program’s early numbers are impressive.

He says after four months and 600 enrollees, only three of MAT’s participants have come back to the jail on new charges.

“It's hard to argue with success and that's what we're seeing right now,” he says.

Roseanne says she’s living proof of that success.

“Before I was just ‘Roseanne the addict’, I wasn't ‘Roseanne the mom’,” she says smiling. “Now, I have nothing to hide. I feel great and I’m doing great."

Dr. Allgaier says dozens of jails are already reaching out to Benton County about bringing MAT to their own facilities. “If we’re able to successfully replicate this is other parts of the country, there’s going to be potentially thousands and thousands of lives saved.”