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How medication is helping to treat opioid addiction in Northwest Florida

Panhandle Comp Care-3.jpg
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Inside the private booths where patients receive FDA-approved drugs for their opioid addiction. Panhandle Comprehensive Treatment Center offers medication-assisted treatment in Pace.

There’s a different kind of epidemic in Florida.

The state ranks second in drug overdose deaths, with 7,900 drug overdose deaths reported from February 2021 to February 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Due to incomplete data, the CDC predicts that number to be closer to 8,205.

“I haven’t had a person in the last six months tell me that they don’t know a person, or several people, that have died by overdose this year,” said Sweneda McDonald, licensed mental health counselor and director of the medication-assisted treatment program at Lakeview Center.

Earlier this month, in Gadsden County 19 people overdosed on fentanyl and nine died in one weekend. The event was such a shock to the county, and the state, that First Lady Casey DeSantis hosted a roundtable discussion with public health and law enforcement officials to launch a statewide campaign to warn about the dangers of the drug.

One of the ways to treat an opioid addiction is through MAT, or medication-assisted treatment, which is the use of FDA-approved drugs, along with counseling and behavioral therapies.

Access to such treatment is growing in Northwest Florida. In 2020, the Panhandle Comprehensive Treatment Center opened in Pace, one the first and few facilities to offer that treatment in that area. Within its first year, the facility was treating over a hundred patients.

‘The gold standard’

Panhandle Comp Care.jpg
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Panhandle Comprehensive Treatment Center Clinic Director Andrew Lafontant

Clinic Director, Andrew Lafontant said medication-assisted treatment is “the gold standard.”

“We see the crime rate go down. We see less ER visits in the hospital, in areas where we have the treatment,” he said. “We see a dramatic decrease of arrests, especially involving narcotics, burglaries, and stuff like that. Because without treatment, those things are occurring.”

In Santa Rosa County, there has been a 57% increase from 2020 to 2021 in EMS overdose responses, according to the Florida Department of Health. In Escambia, there was a 51% increase. Sgt. Rich Aloy, public information officer for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency has seen a significant increase in their own reports. SRSO does a drug take-back program twice a year for people to safely dispose of their extra medicine.

Panhandle Comprehensive Treatment Center, which is located in a strip mall next to a barbershop and donut bakery, is unassuming. Inside, it looks like a typical doctor’s office. Everything is confidential, no questions asked. Patients go into a booth and talk to a nurse behind a window just like a pharmacy, but with more privacy. All medications are behind lock and key.

Lights outside of the booth indicate occupancy.

“There’s a green light and a red light,” explained Lafontant. “A green light means there’s a patient in there and the red light means it’s empty.”

The facility also provides Narcan, a nasal spray medication used in an emergency to treat an opioid overdose, for free. Staff trains anyone who walks in the door on how to use it.

“Again, that’s no questions asked,” Lafontant said. “They come in and they need it — it’s a judge-free zone. We know what it’s for, so there’s no point in saying to someone, ‘Are you using?’ and try to dig. We’re just glad they’re responsible enough to want it, whether it be the person that is using, or a maybe it’s a loved one.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 544 was signed into law, which gave residents the ability to go directly to pharmacists to receive. Previously, individuals were required to go through law enforcement.

Panhandle Comp Care-4.jpg
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Narcan is offered at Panhandle Comprehensive Treatment Center for free no questions asked. Over the years, first responders have carried it to reduce overdose deaths.

Most of the patients with insurance end up paying nothing for treatment, said Lafontant. Without insurance or grant money to subsidize the cost, treatment can be about $400 a month.

There is a holistic approach to facilities like Panhandle that seek to treat more than just an addiction. Counseling is offered, and not just for the patients, but caregivers as well. Addiction is a disease where support groups tend to go away, explained Lafontant.

“When you have somebody diagnosed with cancer, the support group grows and they rally around them,” he said. “Diabetes, the support group rallies around them. Addiction is kind of the opposite. You see this trend where the support group is kind of burnt out and tired.”

The facility also has a food pantry and even a small library of books to borrow.

“If a patient is struggling, they know they can come on in there, get a bag of groceries and go home,” said Lafontant. “Sometimes, it brings them to tears when they find out (about the pantry).”

Treating a disease

Part of Lafontant’s mission with the facility is educating caregivers, and the public about the disease.

“For the longest time addiction was seen as a moral deficiency,” said Lafontant. “‘Why can't you just stop?’ or ‘why did you choose to do this?’ Nobody was acknowledging the fact that the biopsychosocial aspect of addiction, the hereditary predisposition of it, the environmental factors of somebody growing up watching (their parents) use.”

There’s been a stigma around MAT. McDonald says there’s a “false reality” for some that the treatment is just replacing one drug for another.

“The more accurate perspective is that medication-assisted treatment is treating a drug addiction with a medication,” she said. “And not just a medication, but MAT includes comprehensive evidence-based treatment to include intensive counseling as well.”

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Lakeview Center
Sweneda McDonald, director of the Lakeview Center Medication Assisted Treatment programs.

“Opioid addiction is as much a mental health disorder as a physical dependency. Because mental illnesses are treated with medication, it definitely makes sense that opioid addiction should be treated this way, too.”

The success rate of MAT is about 75% to 80% of patients not relapsing. Only about 2% of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction find abstinence successful, said McDonald.

It’s more about the science of the brain and not about willpower when it comes to addiction. This is one of the things that both McDonald and Lafontant wish more people understood.
“Their brain is literally hijacked by the drugs,” said Lafontant. “And, so that's what we do with the families. We educate them. And they're like, ‘oh, I get it. He's not being defiant. It's actually these drugs that is stopping me from getting through to my son.’”

Drug addiction, and more specifically opioid addiction, doesn’t discriminate — it affects people in all walks of life. It’s now the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 45.

“It’s the soccer mom, it’s the person who’s struggled with trauma their whole life and became addicted to substance,” said McDonald. “It could be anyone.”

McDonald said there’s no competition when it comes to facilities like Panhandle or Lakeview. Lakeview already has locations in Pensacola, Shalimar, and Century.

“It’s just another opportunity to save more lives,” she said. “A person doesn't have to reach rock bottom to go and get help. A person just has to start a conversation.”

“Just keep hope alive.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.