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Criminal Justice

StateImpact: Oklahoma Paid For More Addiction Treatment And Providers Say It's Saving Lives

Oklahomans struggling with substance abuse no longer have to wait to get into some of the most intensive treatment for addiction. Treatment providers believe a $10 million increase in funding from the state Legislature two years ago is now saving lives.

Addiction is time sensitive. Donna Woods says when someone comes to her ready for help she has to act fast.

“There’s a very small window when a person says, ‘I need help,’ Woods said.

“If there’s not a bed for them, 99% of the time they’re going to go back out to do what they know and that’s using – whether it be drugs or alcohol.

Woods is the executive director and founder of a peer recovery nonprofit based in Oklahoma City named OCARTA (Oklahoma Citizen Advocates for Recovery and Transformation Association). The organization offers community support to people who’ve decided to work towards sobriety.

Woods started OCARTA about 20 years ago. She says finding treatment options for her clients has been difficult for most of that time.

“You couldn’t get anybody in any place,” Woods remembers. “I think in 2014 or (2015), we had a young man who heard about OCARTA … he said, ‘Listen, my brother’s having a problem with drugs.’”

The man wanted his brother to get substance abuse treatment but there was no room in any of the nearby facilities. He asked if he could drop his brother off at OCARTA every morning to at least get support from the community and then pick him up again at night.

Woods said ‘yes.’ Each day the man dropped off his brother and each night he picked him up.

“On the 31st day of him coming here … He finally got a bed at the recovery center,” Woods said.

Not everyone can wait that long.

Dangerously long waits

Over the years Woods has seen other people get put on months-long waiting lists and eventually fall into serious trouble.

“That person could be caught up in their disease, or dead, or in jail by the time they get in a bed,” she said.

The cost of leaving addiction untreated is high. The Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services told lawmakers last year that around 300,000 Oklahoma adults struggled with alcohol or drug dependence.

A state task force focused on criminal justice reform reported several years ago that 31% of people sentenced to prison in Oklahoma were arrested on drug charges. Addiction also leads to early deaths and long-term medical conditions.

Armed with that information, the mental health agency made ending wait periods to get into residential substance abuse treatment centers a priority.

A bump in funding

The agency asked state lawmakers for over $90 million in funding to pay for its Smart on Crime program in 2019.

Lawmakers gave the agency $10 million which it used to add at least 175 new beds in residential treatment centers.

Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Commissioner Carrie Slatton-Hodges said during a budget hearing with lawmakers in January that the additional capacity bought with those funds was enough to eliminate waits.

“If you’re assessed and your level of need is residential substance abuse treatment, we’re able to move you right in,” Slatton-Hodges said.

The mental health agency estimates that before the increase, nearly 600 men and women were waiting for a chance to get help.

‘Miraculous turnaround’

Edie Nayfa is executive director of Catalyst Behavioral Services – one of the nonprofits that partnered with the state to create more residential treatment space.

Catalyst used some of the additional funding to pay for a new treatment center for men in Enid.

“Within 30-60 days, we actually had more clients … that was kind of like our struggle,” Nayfa said. “We had to get more therapists hired to accommodate the big flood of clients that were coming in. It didn’t take long.”

Catalyst has served approximately 620 additional people in Enid since the new treatment center opened in late 2019.

Donna Woods also noticed the difference almost immediately. She says the new capacity was a “miraculous turnaround.”

Now, Woods is looking to the next gap in service. She’s happy there’s more access to treatment but says people in recovery still need help when they get out of residential centers.

“Treatment is an episode. It’s not a lifelong deal …,” Woods said. “We’ve got to put into place modalities that are looking towards long-term recovery.”

‘Keep them engaged’

Woods wants more investment in programs that help people find housing, transportation and jobs.

“If you can keep them engaged from that episode in treatment … a warm handoff into a sober living environment, and getting them really involved within that recovery community, you have a lot more successes,” she said.

Edie Nayfa says the state also needs to keep investing in the treatment side even though long waits to get into residential centers are over.

She predicts the demand for residential services is only going to increase as the COVID-19 pandemic ends and people lose their fear to sign into congregate living centers.

“Addiction is not going away,” Nayfa said.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

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