Group takes a new approach to tackling drug addiction in the Tri-Cities

When one Tri-Cities mother lost her son to drug addiction, she was devastated.

Then she got mad.

Michele Gerber had never known an addict until her son became one and died after years of struggle.

“After grieving, I got angry at this disease that cost me so much,” said Gerber, best known from her decades as a Hanford historian and author.

Now, her tragedy is responsible for launching a growing local coalition that’s aggressively — some say even controversially — fighting opioid abuse and other drug addictions.

The Benton Franklin Recovery Coalition — with board members ranging from the Benton County sheriff to the doctor leading the Benton Franklin Health District — is working with people and organizations ranging from jails to family care doctors to prevent or treat substance abuse.

“Addiction is a disease not a disgrace. It can happen to anyone,” said Gerber. The group focuses on addiction as a brain disease.

Since incorporating as a nonprofit less than five months ago, it already has 80 volunteer members, even turning away others who have a different focus.

“We do not just sit around and talk about our feelings,” she explained.

Doctor education planned

Members work to improve opportunities in the Tri-Cities area to help people recover from addiction.

Dr. Amy Person, the Benton Franklin Health District officer, joined the board, concerned by the way substance abuse, including opioid abuse, is touching so many of the district’s public health programs, including those for families.

The coalition is planning a continuing education summit for health care providers to make sure they are aware of available treatment options and to make sure that opioid prescriptions are being written appropriately.

“We know that in the Tri-Cities we have higher-than-expected rates of opioid prescriptions,” Person said.

Prescriptions are a possible path to addiction.

Patients may be prescribed opioids after an injury or surgery. If legitimate use becomes dependence, they may turn to opioids obtained illegally or turn to more readily available illegal drugs, like heroin or fentanyl.

One way to reach addicts is through the jails.

Jail provides medical program

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher estimates that one in five people who are incarcerated at the Benton County jail arrive with opioids in their system.

He has seen inmates walk out of jail and shoot heroin in the parking lot because their addiction is so strong.

The jail has started making doctors available to get substance-abusing inmates on a treatment program that includes medication to reduce cravings and help with severe withdrawals.

The medications, which do not produce a high, are gradually reduced.

Critics argue the medications enable drug users to just trade one drug for another. But Hatcher and coalition officials say it can get inmates going in a direction where they may actually succeed.

When inmates are released, the jail does a handoff to treatment programs with the same doctors. If a released inmate is really struggling, Hatcher will arrange to drive them to the treatment program.

Now, at least 60 percent of inmates are making a first appointment, Hatcher said.

Of the 286 inmates who have started through the full treatment program offered at the jail only recently, 119 have stuck with the program, Hatcher said.

He said he is working with county commissioners to turn part of the work release center into a privately operated detox center.

Although detox could be offered as a choice to some who are arrested, those who choose to leave would have to face their original charges.

Reaching addicts through needle exchanges

Another way to reach people before their addiction drives them into the criminal justice system is at needle exchanges.

Although the Benton Franklin Recovery Coalition was not involved in the establishment of a needle exchange center in Kennewick, it supports syringe exchanges linked to treatment.

“It is a pathway to recovery, hopefully,” said coalition board member Danielle Stenehjem, a graduate student in addiction studies at Eastern Washington University. “Get them in the door and you can offer them recovery. Right then and there you can offer them medication and work with them on housing.”

Every time people go into the Ideal Option needle exchange, they can be talked to about a different way to handle their addiction, Hatcher said.

The center will have board-certified addiction doctors and counseling professionals on the premises, according to Ideal Option.

When a needle exchange operated for 10 months until recently in Pasco, it served more than 330 people and passed out about 20,000 syringes a month.

Between 2006 and 2017, opioid overdoses killed more than 8,000 people in Washington, with the majority caused by opioids, according to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

It was more than were killed by car accidents or guns.

In 2017, 20 deaths were opioid-related in the Tri-City area, the Benton-Franklin Health District reported.

But the overdoses that result in deaths do not reflect the true size of the problem, according to the new coalition.

It wants all overdoses in Benton and Franklin to be reported to authorities.

“The more we can talk about the scope of the problem, it is going to open a lot of eyes,” Person said.

The Benton Franklin Recovery Coalition does not operate programs such as those at jails, but is focused on education, Gerber said.

New way of thinking about addiction

It wants to educate voters on the benefit of programs that may seem controversial but can promote recovery from addiction and reduce barriers to a better life.

The traditional thinking that some local residents may still believe is that an addict has to hit rock bottom before they can be helped, Gerber said.

It’s thinking that led to deaths, she said.

Outcomes are better if the addict can be reached sooner with less change to the brain..

Next month the coalition will launch a new initiative.

In addition to reaching out to support programs in institutions like jails and hospitals, it will start an education campaign to help people understand what they can do as individuals.

“It starts with cleaning out your own medicine cabinet,” Gerber said. Opioids should be disposed of through law enforcement medication collections or put in a lock box.

More information about the Benton Franklin Recovery Coalition is posted at www.509recovery.org.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.