CINCINNATI — A new avenue to addiction care has started with Safe Places Cincy, a pilot program that lets those seeking treatment get it fast, simply by walking into a Cincinnati health center.

"We want to be there when someone's ready to go into treatment," said Cincinnati council member Amy Murray, who partnered with health officials and organizations to create the program for city residents. They announced the pilot March 18.

The opioid epidemic has required public health and other authorities to open numerous pathways to treatment to try to aid those who are addicted. Providing treatment on demand is important, experts say, because many addicted people want help one moment but turn away from it the next because of withdrawal sickness or environmental triggers that cause them to use drugs.

Quickly connecting a person seeking drug treatment with the right medical care is what Safe Places Cincy aims to do in Cincinnati.

"We have a very narrow mission," said Dr. O'dell Owens, president

and CEO of Interact for Health, a nonprofit involved in the program. "We are another point of contact (for the addicted) exactly when they need it."

Safe Places Cincy works like this: If you want addiction treatment, go to a Cincinnati health center and ask for it. Once there, a "strike force team" will figure out whether you need hospitalization. If so, they'll get you to the hospital.

If not, they'll connect with one of three partnering addiction centers: Talbert House, Brightview Health or the Center for Addiction Treatment, to secure an appointment.

After that, they'll call Uber Health for a ride to the center if it's open. If not, they'll get you to a safe place to stay. When the treatment site opens, Uber Health will take you there.

Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore said her department's role is "a natural."

"This is a public health issue. This is what we should be doing in our health centers," she said.

Providing help fast is one thing, but letting drug users know that the help is available can be just as trying. But Safe Places Cincy founders say that's being handled, too. The health centers will have posters about the program to inform those seeking the help. They will let their current clients know about it, too. Treatment centers and shelters will be informed, and the Exchange Project, the area's syringe exchange program, will provide news about the additional way to get help to its participants.

Murray got the initial idea from Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor Jorge Elorza more than a year ago at a leadership conference in Colorado. He told her about Safe Station, which started in New Hampshire with fire stations open 24-7 to those seeking treatment.

Manchester, New Hampshire Fire Chief Daniel Goonan came to Cincinnati in September 2018 to talk about the program with Interact officials, Murray and firefighters. Safe Station started in May 2016, and Manchester's program has been used as an access point 5,221 times, or roughly five times a day, Goonan's records show.

Colerain Township Fire Department adopted the program in November 2018.

There, Safe Station allows those with addiction to go to any of five fire stations in the township at any time of the day or night. Paramedics do a medical assessment, and if all's clear, contact Addiction Services Council's 24-hour line, said Assistant Fire Chief Will Mueller. The council sends transportation (unless the person has to be transported to a hospital) and gets the person to treatment.

Mueller said Safe Station removes the barrier of time so people can come forward when they're ready. So far, eight people have asked for help at the Colerain stations.

Cincinnati Fire Department officials weren't entirely comfortable with the idea. Murray said the department's size would complicate logistics, so organizers took a different route via the health centers

Interact for Health got the program rolling with a $10,000 grant for its Uber Health account. Moore said she has strike force teams ready to go at the health centers, during regular hours.

There's hope that, after the yearlong pilot program, Safe Places Cincy will find a treatment avenue that's a 24/7 partner so that people can get help round-the-clock. The next step would include providing behavioral health help to families of the addicted, she said.

Interact for Health plans to evaluate the program, in part by tracking the progress of those who take up the Safe Places Cincy offer for help, Owens said.

Costs for Safe Places Cincy are minimal, Murray said. The program did not require City Council approval because the cost of the Uber service is coming through the Interact grant, and the health centers are already staffed, Moore said. Private insurance or Medicaid covers treatment and, Moore said, health teams will help enroll the uninsured.

For now, six of the city's seven health centers (in Downtown, East End, Lower Price Hill, Madisonville, Northside and Over-the-Rhine) are prepared to help. To learn locations of the Cincinnati health centers, visit the health department website online.

"This is a public health issue. This is what we should be doing in our health centers."

Melba Moore Cincinnati health commissioner

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