It wasn’t long after he became addicted in 2006 that Aaron Chaffins started looking for a way out — short-term treatment wasn’t working, and every residential treatment center he called in his home state of Kentucky left him feeling more hopeless than ever.
“It’s discouraging, when you call a place because you want to change your life, and you realize you can’t get in,” Chaffins said. “I know that, for a while, it made me feel like there weren’t any good people out there. It made me feel like nobody cared.”
It wasn’t until after he was arrested in 2010 that Chaffins found The Healing Place of Huntington, now called Recovery Point, and entered its long-term residential treatment facility. Sober since February of 2013, Chaffins has worked as a peer mentor for Recovery Point since graduating from the program, and said the long-term facility and his continued involvement in others’ recovery have made and kept him drug free.
“I was born in Kentucky, but West Virginia saved my life,” he said.
In a way, Chaffins is lucky — many addicts never make it to treatment. According to a study published by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, only 22 percent of opioid users in the U.S. participated in any form of addiction treatment between 2009 and 2013.
In West Virginia, about 15,000 people received some form of drug or alcohol abuse treatment last year, according to the West Virginia Behavioral Health Providers Association. In contrast, nearly 60,000 West Virginians were identified as in need of substance abuse treatment, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Nearly 2,900 West Virginians have died after overdosing on prescription painkillers or heroin in the last five years, according to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, with nearly 34 deaths per 100,000 people — more than twice the national average. Heroin and prescription pain pills, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, caused nearly 90 percent of those drug overdose deaths since 2011, according to the Health Statistics Center data.
There are about 750 treatment beds in West Virginia, according to Kim Walsh, deputy commissioner for the West Virginia Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities. Those beds are in several types of facilities
n About 130 beds in detox/crisis stabilization centers, which keep users for an average of seven to 10 days while they work the drugs out of their system.
n About 100 beds in residential programs that are 28 days or longer.
n The rest are in recovery residence programs, which usually cater to those who have detoxed and need long-term recovery support, Walsh said.
West Virginia has about 140 new treatment beds slated to in the coming months, she said.
Recovery Point of Huntington, the largest long-term facility in the state with more than 100 beds, has a waiting list that is four to six months long.
Others are even longer — Carl “Rolly” Sullivan, WVU Medicine addictions expert, said the state provides good clinical services, but there just aren’t enough clinics and therapists to help everyone that has a drug abuse problem.
“If you have an opioid dependency, unless you have lots of money, you’re in trouble,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said WVU Medicine’s call center has recently started putting people on a waiting list when they call for opioid abuse treatment. The center used to have a first-come, first-served policy, but drug abuse patients have overwhelmed the call center. A month after the wait list was created, there is a year-long wait for treatment, he said. The waiting list is filled with callers who were willing to wait, while others may have decided not to put their names on it, Sullivan said.
“And we don’t advertise that we treat opioid addiction,” he said. “This is all word of mouth.”
Walsh said the biggest thing is to just recognize the problem.
“We’re paying very close attention, we’re continuing to have regional substance abuse task forces that started when the Governor’s Advisory Council was started some years back. We just had the 102nd meeting of those, and we’ve finished 17 rounds, which means we’ve visited each region of our state 17 times,” Walsh said. “We’ll keep going, because we have to continue that dialogue. Our communities differ from region to region, and we have to pay attention to those differences and the nuances in the programs we have to establish.”
According to Walsh, one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent memory was the creation of 844-HELP4WV, the first statewide 24-hour substance abuse and mental health call line announced in September.
“One of the things that led to that call line being established was us hearing from nearly every community in West Virginia that access to navigation was a issue,” she said. “We talked about timely access — getting people the care they needed when they needed it, so that they didn’t throw their hands in the air and walk away and continue using.”
Kristen Atwell, a Huntington resident, fought for long-term treatment for years before ever receiving it, and said quitting “cold turkey” after a short stint in a crisis stabilization bed was, for her, impossible.
“I frequently called CPS on myself asking for help,” Atwell said. “They started by giving me a list of treatment centers in West Virginia — there are a lot more treatment center beds for men here than there are for women ... the wait for some was six months to a year, and you had to complete detox before they would accept you.”
Atwell moved from Brooke County to Huntington to seek treatment after two stays in short-term facilities there that were quickly followed by two relapses. Her mother committed her to a psychiatric unit in the northern part of the state, but she was released after three days and quickly returned to using heroin.
“Finally, I found a place in Clarksburg that was brand new, with a nearby detox unit in Bridgeport ... I don’t remember the lady’s name at the detox center, but I remember I was told that the 30-day treatment facility may not have a place for me. I was just honest with her, and I told her, ‘If I don’t go from here to a 28-day facility, I’m going to use.’”
The detox counselor found her a bed in a men’s facility where, after about 15 days, she “came out of the fog” and eventually found another spot at Rea of Hope in Charleston, where she spent six months practicing total abstinence.
Atwell, who has been sober since May of 2013 and is back in school, said she and other addicts in West Virginia find their biggest challenge is returning to society.
“I know a lot of recovering addicts who have lost hope at becoming productive members of society,” Atwell said. “The goal of long-term recovery is to be reintegrated back into society, but many have previous charges stemming from trying to find the means to get more (drugs). On my record, I have an attempt to abuse drugs charge, which is just a misdemeanor, and that’s prevented me from getting jobs in the past. I can’t imagine how difficult it is, with something like felony possession of a substance, to find gainful employment.”
West Virginia is racing to catch up to the problem — more than 300 of the treatment beds in the state have opened in the last two years, Walsh said. Recovery Point is currently working toward opening a women’s treatment facility in Charleston, and plans to open the center with 20 to 30 beds in the spring, with plans to expand to 136 beds in the coming years.
“We all need support systems — that’s how we get through life,” Chaffins said. “If you have a family that’s close that can come visit, and you can get to the place, because it’s tough for someone who doesn’t have money to drive six or seven states to get to another facility ... what I’ve seen in West Virginia is that we want to help people who are in trouble.”
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.