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FINDING HOPE: Utah lawmakers using federal funding to help homeless drug addicts get treatment

Targeted Adult Medicaid improving treatment access
Posted: 2:24 PM, Mar 18, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-19 04:17:05Z

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — When it comes to fighting the opioid epidemic, states across the country are faced with a major dilemma: How do you fund addiction treatment for everyone who needs it?

The state of Utah is making progress with help from the federal government. Expanding access to addiction treatment was a major part of Operation Rio Grande , where agencies on the city, county, and state level joined forces to clean up a specific area of Salt Lake City over-run by drug use and illegal activity.

If you're wondering about the importance of expanding access to addiction treatment, look no further than Beverly Martinez. "I used drugs and I drank for 30 plus years," Martinez said. "I was in a bad place, made bad choices."

At the time of our interview, Beverly was just two days away from completing the first phase of her recovery treatment at Odyssey House in Salt Lake City, living in the treatment center since August of last year.

The program is probably the toughest thing I've had to go through in my life," Martinez said. "This program kept me alive."

Now, thanks to Operation Rio Grande, many homeless drug addicts living on the streets of Salt Lake City are getting that chance to change with the option of entering a strict treatment program to get clean.

"We tell people right up front, this is a difficult program. You have to want to get help and you have to embrace it and you have to go along with the flow," Randall Carlisle with the Odyssey House said.

Carlisle knows addiction isn't cured overnight. The average length of stay at Odyssey House is four to six months.

"We believe that you didn't become a heroin addict overnight or in 30 days," Carlisle explained. "We believe that it takes longer than 30 days to treat the addiction, as well as the underlying mental reasons why you're an addict."

But if these people are homeless, how are they paying for expensive live-in treatment for months on end? That's where the federal government filled in the gaps. Utah legislators applied for Targeted Adult Medicaid - or TAM - to fund treatment for a specific adult population struggling with substance abuse.

"The majority of people that came from Operation Rio Grande were covered by TAM," Carlisle said. "If we wouldn't have gotten that financial expansion, thanks to the federal government, we couldn't have dealt with these people. So the situation would've been the same down there today as it was a couple years ago."

To ensure long-term stability, you can't complete the program at Odyssey House until you have stable employment and housing.

"I have a job! I'm working legally!" Martinez said. "And I get to go to an apartment where I'll be living. I get to transition out of treatment into society where I'll be productive."

No doubt the federal funding made it possible, but Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera says there's always something more that could be done.

"Now that the medicaid expansion has happened, we're able to help a little bit more people, but if we were to have full expansion, we would be able to help a lot more people," Sheriff Rivera said.

And for those struggling to take that first step toward treatment, Beverly wants to remind you: life can get better with a little hard work and determination.

"Your life is worth living, and if I can change from where I come from to where I am now, there's not anybody in the world that can't change," Martinez said.

If you're wondering if the program is working, the answer is yes. Carlisle says typical clients that come into Odyssey House see a 62-64% success rate, while the population specifically from Operation Rio Grande is seeing success at 74%.