OSWEGO — Farnham Family Services recently opened a new service aimed at treating heroin and opioid addiction that’s the first of its kind in Oswego County, providing access to treatment options previously unavailable locally.
Farnham Family Services recently started an outpatient program at the organization’s Oswego clinic offering medication-assisted treatment using methadone to individuals struggling with opioid addiction.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a combination of behavioral therapy and medications to treat substance use disorders. MAT programs typically use drugs like methadone or buprenorphine (commonly referred to by the trade name Suboxone).
With opioid-related overdoses continuing to rise, local service providers are seeking ways to assist individuals struggling with addiction and to remove barriers to recovery. Experts say medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs are one of the most effective ways to combat opioid addiction and prevent overdose deaths.
Recent data from the state Department of Health shows emergency room visits caused by opioids — drugs like heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone — in Oswego County increased from 54 in 2015 to 78 in 2016. Overdose deaths caused by opioids rose from 15 to 23 in the same time period.
Nationally, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of opioid overdose in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For years the closest medication-assisted therapy program was at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse. Officials said more than 60 people were traveling from Oswego County to that program, with another nearly 40 on a waiting list to enter the program.
Similar programs have opened in Liverpool and other locations in recent years, but the Farnham program is the first in Oswego County.
“People are not leaving the county any more, which is a really, really good thing,” Farnham Clinical Director Mary Jo Proietta-Halpern said.
Proietta-Halpern said in nearly 25 years at Farnham, historically only about 2 percent of the patients served by the organization suffered from opioid abuse.
“Three years ago it blasted through all other things and hit 43 percent,” Proietta-Halpern said.
Following a lengthy application process, Proietta-Halpern said the MAT program opened Sept. 11, and more than 30 clients are now enrolled in the program.
“Our goal was to have 50 (patients) by December,” Proietta-Halpern said. “I think we’re going to meet that goal much sooner than anticipated.”
Counselors and medical professionals evaluate individuals that are seeking treatment, and each person receives a diagnosis before being admitted into the MAT program.
Proietta-Halpern said the methadone program is voluntary and, unlike many of Farnham’s other services, can’t be mandated by judges or probation officers.
“Generally speaking, when we have the long arm of the law assisting us in keeping people in treatment it helps a lot,” she said. “However, what we’ve found is that people really want this, and when people show up on our doorstep they are not leaving.”
Executive Director Eric Bresee said a number of patients have transferred from other programs, and several individuals who left MAT programs due to transportation issues and returned to using heroin have now enrolled in Farnham’s program.
“When this service became available locally, they reconnected and are now back on the path to recovery,” Bresee said.
Patients are also assigned to a number of group and individual therapy sessions each week, Proietta-Halpern said, and patients visit the treatment program six days a week, Monday through Saturday, to receive the medication.
“The critical aspect of it is that (patients) are not only taking these medications, they’re also working on recovery via treatment,” Bresee said. “By embedding the services for admitted clients we’re ensuring that the evidence-based model is happening.”
As those enrolled in the program abstain from drugs and attend all appointments and therapy sessions, “take-home” privileges can be gained, allowing patients to visit the facility less than often.
Proietta-Halpern said some individuals could stay on methadone for years, while others might take the drug for only a short time. She said people can maintain their lives and stay on low doses of methadone for a long time and become “successful, taxpaying citizens.”
She said the best way to think about it is to compare it to depression, and noted nobody would say someone should only be on depression medication for two years.
“They’ve done a ton of research and they’re really finding that it’s not a big deal to stay on these medications,” Proietta-Halpern said. “There’s no rush to get people off.”