Updated 4:05 p.m.
Shelley Bastos’ problems with opioids started early, after surgeries as a young woman hooked her on Percocet. But after years of battling drug use, she finally found a reputable clinic that helped her stabilize with the proper dose of methadone. For Bastos, it was a life-saver.
“It was available,” Bastos, 37, said about medication-assisted treatment. “When I was ready, I was able to use those resources to gain the coping skills to get the support I needed.”
But many people with opioid use disorders have not been as lucky. Learning about and getting access to medication-assisted treatment has been difficult.
It’s considered the only evidence-based protocol for weaning and staying off opioids, but it has not been widely available in Philadelphia. Some form is currently offered at most city programs — but the options have been insufficient to combat the mounting opioid crisis, which has left Philly with one of the worst overdose epidemics in the nation.
Making it widely available is now a priority, officials say.
Philadelphia is making a massive push to expand access to buprenorphine, methadone and Vivitrol in controlled amounts, with the goal of helping patients detox and then maintain without getting high, according to Behavioral Health Commissioner David T. Jones.
By January 2020, all 80 residential drug treatment programs under contract with Philadelphia must offer the treatment, the commissioner said.
“The benefit of MAT is that it helps in terms of increasing retention in treatment,” said Jones in an interview Wednesday. “It clearly results in improving the individual’s survival.”
24-hour access and more doctors trained
Over the past year, the city has opened its own center that offers the treatment 24 hours a day, removed a requirement for urine screening, and added 3,000 new treatment slots citywide.
In addition, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services each month is training doctors and other viable prescribers in how to use medication for treatment. Of the just over 450 Philly health care professionals who have that knowledge, nearly 48 percent came through the city’s program.
“What that means is that up to 21,700 Philadelphians will now be able to access buprenorphine through these prescribers,” explained Joel Avery, DBHIDS spokesperson. “Up to 21,700 people who would never have been able to access buprenorphine in this manner before.”
Some remain unconvinced medication-assisted detox is the best treatment for opioid use disorder — and there are other ways to get into recovery.
Jaymie Trump (no relation) grew up in Amsterdam, where the legal drinking age was 16, and became addicted to drugs and alcohol at a young age. She also became anorexic and told her family she was seeking treatment for the disease in the United States, still hiding her substance use disorder from her family. Eventually, she wound up in Kensington, where heroin became her drug of choice. “Within two weeks, I was fully hooked,” said Trump, now 28.
But instead getting into recovery through medication, Trump found Alcoholics Anonymous to be effective. “I gave it an honest shot, and it helped me become aware of who I was dealing with and then how to accept myself and how to accept others,” said Trump, who has logged two years this time.
“I don’t knock anybody who takes MAT,” Trump added. “If that is what keeping you alive, then do it. But I am so happy that I don’t have to put something into my body to function. I feel very fortunate that I enjoy my life sober.”
Making it easy to get help
Through Access Point at NET at 5th and Spring Garden streets, people can now go 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for assessment for a substance use disorder. A practitioner will draw up a plan and connect those individuals to treatment right away.
“The ability for somebody to access treatment during that window when they say they’re ready is critical,” Jones said.
And for Bastos, it has been key. With the help of methadone, she is celebrating eight years in recovery. She now works as a paralegal, gets take-home bottles of methadone, and has repaired relationships, including with her mother.
“Things have been really good,” Bastos said. Even with the many bumps she has experienced in recent years, including having to give up a daughter for adoption, methadone and counseling have kept her steady. “I have enough coping skills to stay clean through everything.”
In addition to visiting the intake center, Philadelphia residents can call a 24-hour hotline that a real person answers to connect them to treatment. That number is: 888-545-2600.