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A Syracuse-based drug treatment program is helping provide more lifesaving care by changing the treatment landscape in Cayuga County.

Helio Health, formerly known as Syracuse Behavioral Healthcare, now offers mobile clinical services through a partnership with the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services' Center of Treatment Innovation program.

Created in 2017, COTI was made with a State Targeted Response to the Opioid Crisis Grant. Its goal is to help combat opioid addiction and engage people struggling with addiction in their own communities through peer support and linking people with needed treatment, explained Ron Wood, the program director at Helio Health's COTI.

When Helio Health's COTI program launched in May of 2017, it began with Onondaga, Cayuga, Madison and Oswego counties. Since then, it has expanded to include Oneida and Otsego.

Cayuga County was one of the initial counties selected because it was a county that saw at least a 20-percent increase in opioid overdoses or deaths in recent years, Wood said. Cayuga County is one of 35 counties identified by the state that are in greater need of improved access to mental health and drug treatment.

"What we saw was nine out of 10 people didn't have access to (mental health or drug) treatment or had to leave their county of origin," Wood said. Whether it be lack of insurance coverage, transportation or awareness of community resources, Wood said nine in 10 people have "significant barriers" to treatment.

With a team made up of certified recovery peer advocates, counselors and prescribers, the program offers mobile, community-based support to people with substance use disorders or mental health challenges and helps them overcome any barriers keeping them from treatment.

"They can go to meet people wherever they're at — physically or metaphorically," Wood said of the peers embedded in Cayuga County, who often meet with people at places such as rehab centers, shelters or even park benches.

Wood said that two peers — people who offer "shared, lived experience" of struggling with substance abuse, homelessness or mental health — are dedicated to Cayuga County. There is also a counselor dedicated to Cayuga County, and prescribers are based in Syracuse.

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Having people in the community to literally meet people where they're at helps build rapport, relationship and trust with individuals seeking treatment in addition to eliminating the need for transportation, Wood explained.

Once someone seeking treatment gets referred to a peer — whether by Auburn Community Hospital, the city's police department or community recovery centers such as Nick's Ride — the peer will identify barriers to treatment and help the individual connect with the local counselor and the appropriate level of care.

"We're looking to connect people to resources that are local," Wood said. "This is not a feeder program back to Helio Health."

As with every county Helio Health's COTI operates in, peers offer people awareness of and connections to local providers to help make "seamless connections," Wood said. Helio Health partners with any OASAS treatment providers, such as Confidential Help for Alcohol and Drugs in Auburn, as well as housing and recovery centers.

In addition to meeting people where they're at, Helio Health's COTI also has two vehicles dedicated to Cayuga County to aid in-community engagement with peers and to offer transportation to treatment whether in or out of Cayuga County. Something the group is also moving toward is a telepractice mobile health clinic. Following an initial in-person psychiatric assessment, someone could have follow-up appointments in a mobile assessment vehicle, "an office on wheels," Wood said, that can provide real-time, high-definition connection to a prescriber or medical doctor to continue with medication-assisted treatment. 

As an effort to "keep people on life-saving treatment," Wood said prescriptions could then be called into a local pharmacist and transportation would be provided to pick up the medications. 

Peer staff are available 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, Woods said, with other staff available via a crisis hotline at (315) 401-4288, or in person in Syracuse at all other times. People can call the hotline to get connected with a peer for initial contact and then schedule a mobile clinical assessment with a counselor to get referrals for care, as well as transportation to treatment appointments. 

Among the six counties Helio Health's COTI serves, nearly 800 people "have gotten access to care who otherwise wouldn't have," Wood said. "It really changes the treatment landscape."

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Staff writer Megan Ehrhart can be reached at (315) 282-2244 or megan.ehrhart@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @MeganEhrhart.

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