By Deb Murphy

One significant take-away from the two-day Eastern Sierra Opioid Summit held earlier this week: opioid addiction is not isolated to individual users, it’s a community problem.

Sponsored by the Toiyabe Indian Health Project and a long list of area groups including Northern Inyo Hospital, the Summit brought together a varied panel of experts with hands-on experience. The first day’s topics were crafted for lay people; the second, for care providers.

During the panel discussion on local access to care, Arlene Brown stressed the importance of lowering the barriers to care. A citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, currently working toward her Doctorate degree, Brown works at the Rural Health Care Clinic’s Medication Assisted Treatment Program.

The meds used in the program include Narcan to bring users out of an overdose and drugs that control the craving.

It’s life and death when it comes to addiction,” she said. Patients shouldn’t have to prove how much they want sobriety. “Everybody’s journey is different. No one knows what your success looks like.”

Dan David, Care Coordination program manager at Northern Inyo, explained the hub and spoke approach. “If you need a higher level of treatment or funding for meds,” he said, “we’re the spoke.” David’s job focuses on getting more people into the Bridge program that provides both medications and counseling.

Often, the first step to recovery is an encounter with law enforcement. Sergeant Ron Gladding, Bishop’s narcotics operations supervisor, sees his job as reaching out to people in trouble. “We’re not just there to make an arrest or write a ticket,” he said. But, he added he’s still trying to convince his peers.

Gladding defined the extent of the problem in the Eastern Sierra with the statement that Bishop PD patrol cars have Narcan. During a presentation at Bishop Union High School, David was approached by students asking for help. Treatment is also provided at the Inyo County jail.

Katie Bell, nurse consultant with the Telewell Indian Health MAT Project, addressed a significant issue in small communities—the stigma of drug addiction. “Users are seen as bad, not ill,” she said. “If patients are seen as sick and brave instead of bad, more would get better.” That stigma is even part of the culture of 12-step programs, she explained, especially in the anonymity—no one can know.

That prejudice starts with the words and body language and filters down to funding for treatment which Bell said has been slow in coming. “The opioid epidemic had to be pretty big before we saw the funding,” she said.

The result of that stigma: one in 10 receive treatment; users are afraid to go to emergency rooms.

Opioid addiction is a progressive, recurring disease, Bell said.

Users should be seen as patients not pariahs.

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