Illinois launches drug-addiction hotline, but barriers to treatment persist
John Keilman | December 6, 2017
Illinois officials have announced the launch of a telephone helpline meant to connect people suffering from opioid addiction or other drug problems with treatment providers, part of an effort to reduce overdose-related deaths by a third over the next three years.
The helpline, which is available 24 hours a day by calling 1-833-2FINDHELP, will put a caller in touch with a trained screener who will search for state-licensed options near the caller’s neighborhood or hometown, said Maria Bruni, head of Illinois’ Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.
The idea is to streamline a search that can be time-consuming and frustrating, and can lead the unwary to treatment centers that might not be suitable, Bruni said.
“It’s nice to have a single state resource where people can call and know the information they’re receiving isn’t geared toward getting them into a (specific) program,” she said. “It’s really trying to match them with the treatment they’re seeking.”
Treatment specialists interviewed by the Tribune welcomed the helpline as a needed tool for drug users and their families, but some said it will be only so useful at a time when the state has steadily decreased funding for treatment.
“We need to get these folks to the right treatment, treatment we know is reputable, but then we’ve got to be able to get them in the door,” said Sara Howe of the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health, which represents treatment providers.
Massachusetts was one of the first states to establish an addiction helpline, and it now gets about 2,000 calls a month. Officials with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which runs the service, say call-takers try to assess a person’s needs and ancillary issues, from transportation to family obligations, before suggesting options.
“While geography and finances may be barriers for some, we help people navigate those and any other barriers by ending every Helpline interaction with a viable next step for the consumer to support their treatment and recovery,” a spokeswoman said.
Bruni said Illinois’ model works in a similar way. Screeners, provided by a contractor, access a database of treatment providers, counselors and doctors who offer medications such as buprenorphine, a drug that wards off withdrawal symptoms and blocks the craving for heroin and other opioids.
They can then offer choices to callers depending on where they live, what they’re seeking and what kind of insurance — if any — they have. For now, Bruni said, the screeners are just giving out contact information, but the long-term aim is to be able to instantly connect a caller with a treatment center.
She acknowledged that the state will not be able to ensure access for every caller, particularly in rural areas where treatment is scarce. And uninsured callers seeking to get into residential programs, the most expensive mode of treatment, could still face significant barriers.
But she said many people who need help should be able to find it promptly.
“With outpatient, there’s very little wait time, if any,” she said. “With methadone, right now, we’re seeing short wait times. Most are accepting referrals the same day.”
Dan Lustig, CEO of the Chicago-based Haymarket Center, said one important effect of the helpline should be steering desperate and inexperienced people away from “patient brokers” who direct clients to pricey, out-of-state treatment centers.
“What’s happening now with families is they don’t know where to turn,” he said. “(Brokers) end up sending people to very expensive programs that aren’t effective. What this helpline will do is provide another tool to point people in the right direction.”
Gabriela Zapata-Alma of Thresholds, which treats substance abuse and mental illness throughout Illinois, said the helpline will also assist providers who now serve as informal search engines for people seeking treatment.
“So many times people call our treatment center, and our location is far from where they live,” she said. “I will spend so much time on the phone with them looking for places closer to their home. We never want to give people referrals that don’t pan out.”
Though the helpline will not increase the availability of treatment, the state is tapping the same $16 million federal grant that’s paying for it to add medication-assisted treatment in parts of the state where it is not available, Bruni said.
“We’re hoping early in 2018 to get that done,” she said.