Macon clinic is a ‘beacon of hope’ for Middle Georgia during the opioid crisis

A woman in the Bibb County Jail is addicted to heroin, and medical staff at the jail told Sheriff David Davis that the woman is pregnant with a child who could have issues due to the addiction.

“It’s sad how this crisis moves from one generation to another,” Davis said. “This crosses over all racial and socioeconomic boundaries, so everybody is affected by this from the grandmother who has a bad back and gets addicted, to the person on the street who gets straight up heroin... That’s what makes this crisis so pervasive and so widespread.”

The opioid crisis has plagued America with overdoses, which has been linked to the decrease in life expectancy in the U.S., according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

With this issue traveling through Middle Georgia as well, River Edge Behavioral Health started a program to help people who struggle with opioid addiction in local communities.

In a report by the Opioid Response Network, River Edge is called a “beacon of hope” in Middle Georgia for the care they provide to addicts with limited resources.

“The clinic is a model that should be replicated throughout the State of Georgia’s publicly funded substance use treatment facilities,” reads the report.

River Edge requested the assessment from the Opioid Response Network to learn the needs of the community and become aware of options to fund additional treatment, said Shannon Gordon, CEO of River Edge.

River Edge uses a medication supported recovery program with the drug suboxone to help people suffering from opioid use disorder, she said.

“The research says that people who are opiate addicted or opioid addicted really struggle with stopping because the use of opiates actually changes the opioid receptors in the brain,” she said.

Gordon said suboxone stops the body’s ability to get high off of opioids or opiates.

Treatment is offered at River Edge every Thursday from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Gordon said people typically start by coming every Thursday until they become regulated.

“It’s kind of like when a person has diabetes. When they’re first diagnosed with diabetes, they might go to the doctor more frequently until they get their insulin adjusted, and then they just go back for like routine checkups to get their insulin refilled,” she said.

Individuals seeking care at River Edge must complete an intake assessment before receiving treatment. The form can be filled out at River Edge: Macon-Bibb County from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at their 175 Emery Highway location, according to their website.

Gordon said the program has had many successes, and she said she hopes to expand it to care for more people.

“We have lots of folks who are now, where before they were focused on getting medication to get high, now they’re working and taking care of their families and doing well,” she said.

The clinic only has funding to service 50 people at a time, Gordon said.

“The struggle is that we have more people that need services than we have funding to support them,” she said. “We try to refer to other locations as well, but the challenge with that is that unless it is subsidized or you have health insurance, it’s expensive.”

The funding for the medication suboxone came from the state of Georgia after the package of legislation was signed into law by President Donald Trump to provide funding to federal and state agencies in October 2018, she said.

Gordon said the funding for the program provides medication for people who are uninsured and in need of suboxone. She said uninsured people pay for the treatment based on income and number of dependents. People who have health insurance that covers suboxone pay their regular copay, she said.

“The overall goal that we hope people can see is building recovery capital here both in people and relationships and in new resources,” she said.

Gordon said opioid addiction and overdose is an ongoing problem in Middle Georgia. She said in terms of people reporting for addiction recovery services to River Edge, alcohol dependency is number one, and opioid addiction is number two.

In the state of Georgia, 9.7 deaths per 100,000 involved opioids in 2017, which was lower than the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000. However, Georgia providers wrote 70.9 opioid prescriptions in 2017 for every 100 people compared to the national rate of 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people, according to the Opioid Response Network report.

Bibb County was in the top five counties in Georgia for the most emergency department visits for drug overdoses in February 2019, and had the most visits in April 2019 in the state of Georgia with a rate of 39.6 per 100,000 people, according to a report by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“We see it when it has become its most disastrous result where somebody has died or overdosed on it,” Davis said.

Capt. Chris Rooks, the investigative services commander at the Warner Robins Police Department, said any type of drug addiction causes problems for a community.

“If you had to ask me what was the number one thing we had to deal with now that’s different, that is a new trend is the heroin over the past couple of years seems to be increasingly coming into Middle Georgia,” he said.

Nearly 80% of heroin users, including those in and not in treatment, said they used prescription opioids before using heroin, an opioid drug made from morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Warner Robins Police Chief John Wagner, who was approved to the position by the City Council on Aug. 5, also said the increasing use of hard drugs is one of his biggest concerns moving forward, according to a recent Telegraph article.

“We really have to focus on the drug crimes that are really pushing and driving a lot of crime,” he said.

Both Warner Robins police officers and Macon-Bibb County deputies have been carrying Narcan nasal packs, which offsets the effects of an opioid overdose, for nearly two years. Davis said a few people have been saved by deputies who used the packs when they were overdosing.

“River Edge is doing a fantastic job,” Davis said. “They have been great partners with us at the Sheriff’s Office and with the community to reach out and give the treatment and the information to these individuals, these people who are affected by this crisis.”

Gordon said September is National Recovery Month, and they will be reconvening the people in the focus groups from the Opioid Response Network report to discuss a plan of action for the Middle Georgia community to tackle opioid addiction.

“Treatment is effective, and recovery can be expected, and recovery is transformative,” Gordon said. “I’ve treated thousands of addicts in my life, and I’ve never met one who said, ‘I think I’m gonna become addicted and destroy my life.’ It happens before they know it, and they need help.”

Jenna Eason is a multimedia reporter at The Telegraph and creates serviceable news around food, culture and people who make a difference in the Macon community. Jenna joined The Telegraph staff after graduating from Mercer University in May 2018 with a journalism degree.