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Dauphin County, hospitals partner on overdose treatment plan

Acting state Secretary of Health and Physician General Dr. Rachel Levine speaks about Dauphin County's "warm handoff" program designed to get drug overdose victims into immediate addiction treatment. Listening at right is Jennifer Smith, acting secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. - (Photo / Roger DuPuis)

A partnership between Dauphin County and local hospitals is helping to get drug overdose victims into life-saving addiction treatment, officials said this week.

The county’s “warm handoff” program was created last year in response to a 2016 state directive instructing counties and hospitals to develop ways to get overdose survivors into immediate treatment.

Each county has taken a different approach, with some contracting out the service, state officials said.

Dauphin created its own program nine months ago, hiring two mobile case managers who are available 24/7 to respond to overdose scenes in emergency rooms, bars, homes or other locations.

They have been working with PinnacleHealth and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center on the program.

“When someone has nearly died from an overdose, that is the time to get them into treatment that can save their life,” Dauphin County Commissioner George P. Hartwick III said.

“If someone came into the emergency room with a heart attack or stroke, we wouldn’t just give them information and ask them to call a specialist on their own,” he added.

A $100,000 state gaming grant helped cover startup costs for the warm hand-off program, PinnacleHealth spokeswoman Kelly McCall said, adding that the total costs of opioid treatment efforts at the hospital were not immediately available.

Overdoses claimed 85 lives in Dauphin County last year, up 20 percent from 2015 and more than died in car accidents, statistics from Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick show. Through Aug. 8, the county has seen 61 overdose fatalities, he added.

From January to June of this year, PinnacleHealth treated 82 overdoses at Harrisburg and Community General Osteopathic Hospitals, McCall said.

During the same period, 28 overdoses were treated at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, spokesman Scott Gilbert said.

Program details

Roger DuPuis

Dauphin County’s mobile caseworkers have handled 116 patient assessments so far, resulting in 50 overdose patients being referred into immediate drug treatment.

“Patients are referred to any certified facility that has the capacity to provide comprehensive and appropriate treatment based on the diagnosis, including inpatient and outpatient facilities,” McCall said. “This may include the PinnacleHealth Center for Addiction Recovery, but many choose a rehab facility.”

Dr. Greg Swartzentruber, an emergency medicine physician at Pinnacle, said the program has made a difference.

“If a patient presented to the (emergency department) after an overdose or some type of substance-use disorder and was seeking treatment, we had no one to call for follow-up care and long-term treatment for that patient,” Swartzentruber said.

“Our partnership with Dauphin County Drug and Alcohol has answered this problem, and provided a key resource that we at PinnacleHealth need to address this worsening epidemic,” he added.

“We know that if we can identify these patients early and begin treatment in the ER, patients are more likely to follow up and remain in treatment and in long-term recovery,” Swartzentruber said.

Jennifer Smith, acting secretary of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, praised the approach.

“Dauphin County has created a model program that is achieving results, and we also want to highlight the cooperation and dedication of PinnacleHealth in helping make this possible,” Smith said.

McCall said PinnacleHealth will be working with four new hospitals it recently acquired in Cumberland, York and Lancaster counties to look for similar opportunities for working with county officials at those sites.

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at [email protected].

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