Sen. Rob Portman visited Portage County Thursday, hoping to learn how the county spent a grant of $534,750 which was to be used to fight the opioid epidemic in various ways. 

What he found was a whole lot of teamwork.

"This is an especially impressive degree of collaboration," he said. "Everybody knows each other in this area of addiction."

Following a panel discussion featuring about 15 different agencies at Hope Village Recovery Services in Rootstown, Portman said he will be able to share some hopeful stories with his colleagues in the Senate about the ways various agencies in Portage County spent the grant money from the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.

"I think they used it very effectively," said Portman of the county’s use of the grant. "I am going to have some very positive things to say about their collaboration and ability to work together."

The senator spent much of the discussion time listening to how the agencies attack opioid addiction in different ways. Also represented on the panel were the hosts, Hope Village Recovery Services, Coleman Professional Services, University Hospitals, Kent State University, NEOMED, AxessPointe, Job and Family Services, the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, the Mental Health and Recovery Board, the Portage County Commissioners, Townhall II and Family and Community Services. 

Fighting the stigma surrounding opioid addiction was a common theme among several panelists, including Rose Deroia of Aurora.

"Addiction does not make a person a bad person," she said. "The stigma led my son not to seek treatment."

Dr. Sara Dugan of NEOMED said a different kind of stigma affects the recovery period — the stigma that prescriptions are usually quick fixes. 

"In order to get approval to start treatment, they need to have a tapering plan to get them off," she said of the medically assisted recovery process. "For some patients it may take longer; it’s not an antibiotic course where you finish and it’s over."

Portman agreed there is a stigma in the general public against seeking treatment.

Although progress has been made on some fronts, the senator said more action by Congress is needed.

"One of the things that’s happening in my view is that we’re making some progress both in terms of Narcan saving lives and getting people back on their feet, and then this Fentanyl wave hits."

Portman said the Chinese appear to sending the opioid through the U.S. Postal Service, which he said he hopes Congress can stop with a bill authorizing screening of packages from China.

"We’ve been fighting this for a few years," he told panelists. "We need to check every package. Just in the last few months, there’s been some busts in Ohio that could kill half the population of our state."

Kellijo Jeffries of Job and Family Services made the point that federal support that isn’t specifically earmarked is helpful. She said she has initiated a program to help addicts and others get back to work that provides transportation to jobs for 11 individuals.

"One of the biggest barriers to self-sufficiency after addiction is transportation," she said.

However, she learned one of those being helped couldn’t pay for lunch. She said many in addiction lose everything, "their house, their car, their credit." Now, the agency pays for that woman’s lunch, as well.

University Hospitals director of addiction services Renee Klaric said cooperation is key to making sure patients don’t relapse.

"I work with everybody here," she said. "It’s not top-down thinking; it’s bottom-up thinking. We’ve started treating addiction as the chronic relapsing condition it is."

Dr. Mark Arredondo, the medical director of the Portage County Health District, said he helped create a program at Kent State University for students in recovery. With about 30 students, the program includes assessment, counseling and a support group.

"We have a lot of different events on campus, in the community and throughout the area," he said, including panel discussions, awareness walks and more.

Deroia said addiction is multifaceted and difficult to solve. 

"Addiction is a disease, and recovery is a puzzle," she said. "There’s no amount of willpower that will heal a damaged brain. I pray for all of you and all that you do. The sooner someone comes forward and says, ‘I have a problem. Help,’ the more likely they will make a long-term recovery."

More help from Congress?

Portman said he is trying to get the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act 2.0 through Congress, which would provide additional money for fighting addiction and all the dangers that result from it.

"Part of it could be on the floor in a couple weeks," he said.

According to an informational flyer from Portman’s office, the proposed bill would:

• Place a three-day limit on opioid prescriptions;

• Allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine under the direction of a physician;

• Waive the limit on the number of patients a given physician can prescribe buprenorphine to;

• Increase penalties for opioid manufacturers who fail to report suspicious orders of opioids; and

• Establish a national standard for recovery residence to ensure quality housing for individuals in long-term recovery.

Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, bgaetjens@recordpub.com and @bobgaetjens_rpc.