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Many people who survive drug overdoses spend time in emergency rooms. After being discharged, they face a high risk of overdosing again. Some communities are trying a hands-on approach to prevent that cycle by connecting patients with coaches who have gone through the rigors of addiction recovery themselves. Nick Castele reports on efforts to expand that approach by using settlement money from opioid lawsuits.
NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: This fall, two northeast Ohio counties were slated to be the first to go to trial in a nationwide lawsuit over the opioid crisis, but the defendants offered more than $300 million in cash and drug products to settle the case, and the counties accepted. While more than 2,500 other plaintiffs nationwide are still waiting for a universal settlement that could top tens of billions, Cuyahoga and Summit Counties have their settlement money on the way, and they're planning to spend much of it on anti-addiction programs, including hiring more people like Christopher Hall. Hall is neither a doctor nor a nurse, but at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, he offers patients struggling with addiction something unique - common ground.
CHRISTOPHER HALL: I was addicted. I used heroin for 15 years. I grew up with alcoholism. I know what you're going through, and that really gets them to let their guard down and talk. And they're very relieved.
CASTELE: Once Hall gets patients talking, he tries to sign them up for additional help like detox or residential treatment. He's part of a peer recovery program at MetroHealth. So far, the hospital has been happy with the results of its 2-year-old program. Dr. Joan Papp oversees opioid safety for the hospital and says it takes a lot of time and resources to support people in treatment. That's time that hospital emergency departments rarely have.
JOAN PAPP: With the help of a peer supporter - somebody there to really guide you and hold your hand and, in many cases, drive you directly to treatment - that is just a world of difference.
CASTELE: Now this Cleveland-area county wants to use opioid settlement money to fund peer coaches at other local hospitals. If successful, that could help more people with opioid addiction like Patricia Withrow. She met her peer supporter at a local treatment center in Cleveland.
PATRICIA WITHROW: She's a big part of my life, actually. My day - if I don't talk to her at least once a day, I feel incomplete.
CASTELE: Withrow has been sober for 17 months. When she had a recent cancer scare, she says her supporter talked to her kids to help reassure them. That kind of stress could push someone to relapse, Withrow says, but she's been doing well.
WITHROW: It's taught me how to have actual relationships with people that are positive. She taught me that. She taught me how to set boundaries.
CASTELE: Withrow is referring to her peer supporter, Nicole Betzner. Betzner says she helps her clients work through the messy parts of their lives that can get in the way of recovery.
NICOLE BETZNER: If their home environment is toxic or relationships, or if they have barriers with food, clothing, shelter, transportation, all of those things - kind of unraveling that, but ultimately, also helping a person just recover from different traumas and issues of life.
CASTELE: Over the past five years, as the opioid crisis has deepened, peer support programs have been catching on, launching in New York City, Rhode Island, Indiana and elsewhere. Dr. Elizabeth Samuels at Brown University coordinates with hospitals in Rhode Island. While the results are still coming in, she says, hospital peer support programs seem to be effective.
ELIZABETH SAMUELS: They've been in that person's shoes. They know what it's like. They treat them like a human being. They give them respect.
CASTELE: As this Ohio county moves forward, other communities are still awaiting their share of settlement dollars to help bring people with addiction back from the edge of crisis.
For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland.
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