an audience that included the U.S. surgeon general, a U.S. senator and top health officials from the city and state listened Friday as Charles Jones illustrated the reason they had gathered Friday at Chase Brexton Health Services in Baltimore.
Jones told them about coming to the center and each time being asked to draw a picture of himself.
“I always drew a picture of me with weights on my shoulder,” said Jones, 54, of arriving at the clinic to attempt, once again, to break a heroin addiction that began 26 years ago. “The last picture I drew, the weight wasn’t off my shoulder, but I could lift it. Chase Brexton, the program, it gives me hope.”
Lauding Jones for sharing his “powerful story,” Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general, announced $94 million in new federal funding for the kind of comprehensive, medication-assisted treatment nationwide that has made the West Baltimore man optimistic about his recovery. Murthy said the money will help about 124,000 new patients receive drug addiction treatment.
Chase Brexton, whose main clinic is in Midtown Belvedere, is one of five centers in Maryland that will share nearly $1.8 million of the funding intended to combat an alarming spike in recent years of overdose deaths caused by heroin and other opioid drugs, such as OxyContin and Percocet.
“The bottom line is this: Addressing the opioid epidemic is a public health priority of the highest order,” Murthy said. “A key part of that is supporting treatment. A key part of that is also making sure we change how this country thinks about addiction. We must help people understand that addiction is not a moral failing, but it’s a chronic illness that we have to treat with urgency, with skill and with compassion.”
Considering addiction as something in the mainstream rather than on the fringes of society has been a running theme in recent years as opioid-overdose deaths have cut a swath not just through inner cities, but suburban and rural areas as well.
In Maryland, 527 people died of heroin-related causes in the first nine months of last year — the most recent statistics available, and more than triple the number who died during the same period in 2010. In 2014, the last full year for which data is available, 578 deaths were attributed to heroin and 329 to prescription opioids.
Much as his predecessors have issued reports on public health issues such as smoking, Murthy said he will release one later this year on substance abuse and addiction. It will be the first time the office has issued a report on the topic.
“This is our opportunity to bring together the best possible science on prevention, treatment and recovery,” Murthy said after the announcement. “And it’s also our opportunity to reframe how the country thinks about addiction — as a chronic illness.”
The money announced Friday is coming from Affordable Care Act funding and is part of the Obama administration’s effort to improve access to medication-assisted treatment, which many believe offers the best chance of recovery, combining as it does behavioral therapy and drugs such as methadone and suboxone that help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Health and Human Services officials said research shows that a “whole patient” approach in which drug users receive primary care as well as addiction treatment is successful.
Jones said he previously tried to quit without medication but now takes suboxone, which helps tamp down the craving for heroin. That, combined with therapy and the support of clinic staff makes him feel that he has turned a corner.
“I was just not really liking the person I was. I wasn’t raised to be addicted to drugs … or to be incarcerated because of my drug addiction,” Jones said.
“A couple weeks ago, I completed the first part of my program, and we had a little celebration,” he said. “One of the things that was most touching to me was my therapist, my primary care provider, my addictions counselor — they all attended the ceremony.”
CEO Richard Larison said the $300,000 that Chase Brexton will receive from Health and Human Services will allow an expansion of addiction services to its clinic in Glen Burnie, one of its five locations. Larison said some of the most frequent users of emergency services in Anne Arundel County are opioid users who might be better served in a clinic setting.
“Instead of going continually to the emergency room, they could get connected to comprehensive primary care and addiction services,” Larison said. “We think we can start to make a difference in what it is that’s going on. That’s where the money is going to be used.”
Among the officials attending the announcement were city and state leaders in the forefront of combating Maryland’s opioid problem — Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s health commissioner; Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, who headed Gov. Larry Hogan’s heroin task force; and Van T. Mitchell, Maryland’s secretary of health and mental hygiene.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, representing the state’s congressional delegation, said Murthy had picked the right location to announce the new funds.
“We here in Baltimore have had a hardscrabble time with drugs for a long time,” she said. “Baltimore has been trying to lead this way … to look at it as a public health problem.”
Mikulski referred to the 94-1 Senate vote Thursday passing the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act authorizing, though not allocating, funding to fight opioid abuse. She noted that it was the first time in months that congressional lawmakers had put aside partisan politics to address a national problem.
In February, President Barack Obama proposed $1.1 billion in new funding to address heroin and opioid abuse as part of the final budget of his presidency.
A total of 271 health centers in 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are receiving part of the new federal funding that Murthy announced Friday. The other centers in Maryland are: Baltimore Medical System ($406,250) and Total Health Care ($325,000), in Baltimore; The Community Clinic ($378,604) in Silver Spring; and Greater Baden Medical Services ($379,167) in Brandywine.
Wen called the investment “a huge step in the right direction.”
While she has worked to expand access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, Wen said the key is to treat the underlying addiction.
A round-the-clock crisis and referral line that the city launched in October (410-433-5175) gets more than 1,000 calls a week, she said.
“Ultimately,” Wen said, “that person needs to be connected to long-term treatment.”