By Deb Murphy
Inyo County isn’t immune from the opioid crisis.
According to Northern Inyo Hospital CEO Dr. Kevin Flanigan, eight deaths in Inyo County were directly or indirectly the result of opioid use in 2018. That’s eight too many.
But with NIH’s recent grant funded program through Bright Heart Health, the number of lives destroyed by opioid addiction can be turned around.
The program combines medically assisted treatment and counseling and is available regionally. Flanigan announced the grant funding earlier this month and NIH already has 24 patients enrolled. “That’s 24 lives saved,” he said.
Flanigan is very clear on the origin of the current crisis. “Doctors have been driven to fix pain,” he said. The goal was a pain-free life rather than pain management. When prescriptions ran out, patients looked for that pain-free life elsewhere.
Prior to the grant funding, NIH would bring patients in the emergency room out of an overdose, but, had no immediate after care. Now, physicians can provide drugs that reduce the craving and immediately put the patient into treatment.
Flanigan ran through the available drugs. Narcan blocks the effects of opioids and is used to bring users out of an overdose. “People often come out of an opioid coma angry after Narcan,” Flanigan explained in a telephone interview. The intense craving is still there. Drugs like Subutex and Saboxone control that craving. The patient is now in a position to accept the counseling through Bright Heart Health, available over the Internet and cell phone, Flanigan said.
Counseling is an integral part of the program. “It’s a process of re-building new life skills,” Flanigan said. NIH provides medical staff as well as a counselor to help patients navigate the system.
Anyone who’s ever tried to kick a habit, from nicotine to alcohol to drugs, knows it’s a life-long effort. That’s the tough reality of addiction to opioids. The goal of NIH’s program, said Flanigan, is harm reduction. “Patients may relapse,” he said. “The hope is there are no ill effects. The goal isn’t abstinence.”
That may fly in the face of what we think of recovery programs. But there is a logic to the approach. Flanigan uses the example of a diabetic lapsing with a cupcake. Patients with chronic diseases aren’t kicked out of their doctor’s office and banished from society when they have a lapse. “The addiction medical community knows drug-use is a life-long chronic disease,” Flanigan said. “The main stream is finally realizing this.”