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Warm Handoff Program Combats Opiate Epidemic

By Patrick Smith (patricksmith719@gmail.com)

Eagleville Hospital is on the front lines in the battle against opiate addiction – an epidemic of both local and national proportions. Whether in the form of heroin or prescription painkillers, opiate use is growing at a substantial rate and is taking a devastating and sometimes deadly toll on an increasingly younger age demographic.

Eagleville has realized that proactive steps are needed within treatment centers to combat this problem and as such has implemented the Warm Handoff Program. In the context of this program, Eagleville is making an important “direct reach” connection with Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in East Norriton. Professionals from Eagleville are empowered to interact with overdose patients receiving emergent help at the medical center and encourage them to consider Eagleville for further treatment.

An on-call, around-the-clock effort accomplished through both phone conversations and face-to-face interaction, the Warm Handoff Program is already making an impact, according to Chelsea Lenz, former Director of Admissions at Eagleville. “We evaluate people, and try to convince them that coming into drug and alcohol treatment is a good opportunity for them,” Lenz said. “Typically after people overdose, they are pretty frightened; it’s a big deal for them. We go out, talk to them about their overdose experience, explain how treatment can help them and make sure they are appropriate for Eagleville.”

Beds and Persuasion

Important to the success of this program is the fact that dedicated beds are held at Eagleville specifically for patients who come through Warm Handoff. This streamlines the intake process, allowing overdose patients who opt for treatment to enter into Eagleville’s facilities as quickly as possible. These patients do not have to go home and spend time on a waiting list, resulting in an easier transition.

“It’s really an intervention process at its core,” Lenz said. “Many people are willing to come into treatment, but for those who are not, our purpose is to immediately talk to them and their families and tell them the positives of entering into treatment right away. Otherwise, they may go home after being released from the medical center, increasing the chance that they will avoid the treatment they desperately need.”

This kind of ground-level community effort would all be theory if it were not for the persuasive interactions that ultimately guide patients into therapy.

Susan Carter, a Behavioral Health Engagement Specialist for Eagleville, has made numerous trips to Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, adding her knowledge and techniques of persuasion to the Warm Handoff Program. She explained the intricacies of her critical role.

“I go out and engage these patients, and help them deal with the barriers that stand in their way of getting into treatment,” Carter said. Noting the need for swift interaction, she explained, “It is very important to engage people right after they overdose, when they go to the hospital seeking help. A lot of the police stations, emergency medical services and hospitals are administering Narcan (naloxone, an emergency narcotic overdose medication) to people who overdose then release them. So we have a great opportunity to intervene and help when they are still at the hospital. This intervention can be critical to these people because the next time they use could be the time that kills them. The motivation to get help is right then, right there.”

Financial Finesse

Another integral part of the program falls to the financial aspect of treatment, also an area in which Carter plays an important part. Patient insurance is a necessary topic of interest for treatment centers, and Carter’s efforts ensure that reimbursements run smoothly.

“I complete paperwork for funding,” Carter said. “If patients are uninsured, I do county paperwork so that the county will fund their stay. If they have insurance, I work with the insurers to authorize the stay. It’s a fairly easy process because Magellan, the medical assistance payer for Montgomery County, is well aware of the [opiate] epidemic, and is willing to fund treatment. Some of the commercial insurers aren’t always on board, but they usually will fund the detox portion of it.”

Lenz explained that insurance issues – not having it or being underinsured — historically has been a barrier to care for people. However, she noted that there have been positive developments in recent years. “The county has been paying for people right away rather than waiting for an application for medical assistance, or some other kind of insurance to get turned on,” she said. “It’s even willing to fund some people who actually have private insurance but have been denied payment for treatment.”

Such commitment from Montgomery County to provide prompt treatment for patients is vital. “Without it, they run the risk of relapsing once they get out of the medical center. The less time a patient has to wait for treatment the greater the possibility for a positive outcome. Every minute counts,” Lenz warned.

Effort Makes a Difference

Lenz and Carter both feel that this interventional effort is a necessary step to combating opiate addiction, and they believe it is working. They have seen first-hand how offering this service to a local medical center like Einstein Montgomery has resulted in urging more people into life-saving treatment.

“For us, it’s been very fulfilling” Lenz said. “When you are able to convince somebody to come for treatment who otherwise wouldn’t have done so, it is a great feeling. Typically at Eagleville we talk to people who already have decided to come for treatment, so this is something very different. It’s wonderful to be able to get through to young people and make them understand that treatment is important.”

The Warm Handoff Program is shaping up to be another success for Eagleville Hospital. Lenz estimated that 90 percent of the patients intercepted at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery have come in for treatment — a testament to the effective nature of personal, direct interaction. She also praised the medical center for its spirit of cooperation.

Even though opiate use has increased, hope for recovery is not lost. This new program at Eagleville is just one of many measures being taken to combat the epidemic and encourage recovery. And as additional ideas and treatments evolve, one can already safely categorize Warm Handoff as a success, and trust that it will serve as a model for new programs in Eagleville Hospital’s future.