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Allegheny Health Network Establishes Center of Excellence to Address Opioid Crisis

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New program provides patients addicted to opioids with a range of support and services to guide their recovery

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Allegheny Health Network (AHN), a Highmark Health company, announced today the establishment of a new, comprehensive program designed to help  patients with opioid-related substance use disorders receive the health and community-based care and support they need to recover from their illness and maintain long-term wellness.

The AHN Center of Excellence for Opioid Use Disorder is one of 45 programs implemented across Pennsylvania, all of which are supported by a grant from the state’s Department of Human Services. According to the Department, health care providers selected to receive the grant were chosen for being ahead-of-the-curve when it comes to substance use disorder treatment.

“With so many members of our community affected by the opioid epidemic, AHN is committed to meeting the multi-faceted needs of those who have opioid use disorder,” said Stuart Fisk, CRNP, Director of the AHN Center for Inclusion Health. “We are grateful to be able to serve the most vulnerable populations via the Center of Excellence, helping them to overcome their addiction and begin a journey to healthier living.” 

In addition to Fisk, the new AHN Center’s care management team, consisting of a registered nurse, social workers, and peer recovery specialists, is led by William Johnjulio, MD, AHN’s Chair of Family Medicine. The program is also supported by addiction medicine specialist, Mitchell West, DO, and board certified addiction psychiatrist, Stanley Samuel, MD. The team focuses on coordination of care for patients who are addicted to opioids, including various levels of social welfare assistance as they transition throughout the treatment process. To date, the team has cared for more than 120 patients through the program.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, as of 2015, at least 2 million people in the U.S. have an opioid use disorder involving prescription opioids and almost 600,000 have an opioid use disorder involving heroin. In Pennsylvania, the presence of an opioid, either illicit or prescribed by a doctor, was identified in 85 percent of drug-related overdose deaths in 2016. Nearly 650 people died in Allegheny County in the same year due to overdose.   

Rather than treating the addiction alone, a principal goal of the AHN Center of Excellence is to treat the whole person by integrating behavioral health and primary care. To start, patients are screened for opioid use disorder at a number of AHN’s primary care practices. Screenings have begun at Forbes Family Medicine where the physicians utilize the ‘Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment’ (SBIRT) protocol – an evidence-based practice used to identify, reduce, and prevent problematic use, abuse, and dependence on alcohol and illicit drugs.

Patients identified as having an opioid use disorder and requesting treatment are referred to a half-day clinic at the primary care office where they are introduced to treatment options including Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) and outpatient therapy. MAT combines medication to reduce urges and withdrawal symptoms with on-site behavioral health therapy. Further, patients can be connected with various community-based resources to address social issues such as employment and housing. For patients who are in need of higher levels of treatment, referrals are made to inpatient, residential or intensive outpatient programs.

“Many of the patients we see with addiction to opioids often have underlying issues related to their behavioral and/or physical health,” said Dr. Johnjulio. “It’s about surrounding the person with a range of services and resources, which address all of their challenges, to give them the very best chance at overcoming their addiction.”

To maintain patients’ engagement in treatment over time, they are invited back to the half-day clinics on a weekly basis to receive medical and behavioral support from their physician and the Center of Excellence care team, as well as peer support from others who are similarly working toward recovery.  

Patients might also be referred to the clinics following an emergency department visit as the result of an overdose. In Pennsylvania, hospital admissions for heroin overdoses are up 66 percent in the past two years and have nearly doubled since 2013 according to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council.

For more information about the AHN Center of Excellence for Opioid Use Disorder and/or to make a referral, call 412-359-4644.