A program that works - Former addicts tell their stories of recovery at city forum

LACONIA — Ethan, 25, began selling and using drugs as a teenager.

"I totaled five cars, nodding off while delivering drugs, and spent a lot of time in jail," he said. "I tried everything. My parents took a second mortgage and spent $70,000. And I lost seven close friends in two years."

Kaitlyn, 23, also turned to drugs as a teen and shot heroin for five years, interrupting her habit only long enough to deliver a child, she said, before the spiral began again.

"What was supposed to be the best years of my life quickly became the worst years of my life," she said.

She awoke to find the lifeless body of her best friend on the floor her home and recalled, as his body was taken away, "I went to my bathroom and began to do the same heroin that just killed my best friend."

Jeff, 33, was a young roofer injured in a fall.

"My doctor gave me all painkillers I asked for," he said. "Then he lost his license to prescribe and I started buying on the street, prescription drugs and heroin. I lost everything," he said. "Every addict tells the same story."

For 12 years, he lived from one fix to the next while serving three stints in county jails for crimes he described as "some not so petty and all drug-related.

Today, all three are recovering addicts, clean and sober, who were featured at a forum this week hosted by New Futures at at the Boys & Girls Club of the Lakes Region to highlight the importance of the New Hampshire Health Protection Program in addressing the scourge of drug addiction.

Funded by Medicaid, the New Hampshire Health Protection Program provides health insurance, which includes coverage for substance abuse disorders, to adults whose incomes are less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Since the program was introduced in 2014, almost 45,000 people have enrolled, an estimated 7,560, or 17 percent, of whom meet the clinical criteria to qualify for the substance abuse benefit.

Unless the New Hampshire Legislature reauthorizes the program, it will expire on Dec. 31, 2016. While more than 100,000 people, or 10 percent, of the adult population of the state have a substance abuse disorder, there is capacity to treat no more than 6,000. When treatment providers were polled last year, nearly seven of 10 indicated they wished to expand capacity, but without an assurance that the New Hampshire Health Protection Program would continue were unwilling to make the investment.

"The reauthorization of the New Hampshire Health Protection Program," New Futures insists, "is the single most important tool we have as a state to help address the current opioid epidemic."

Ethan, Kaitlyn and Jeff are all enrolled in the program and each said that it was essential to their recovery.

"It is access to that treatment that has had a major part in keeping me out of prison," Jeff said, "helped to heal a broken relationship with my family, made me available to be a proper provider to my family, and has me alive and present during this holiday season to my 14-year-old stepdaughter. It is Medicaid," he stressed, "that has made treatment accessible to me because I would not have been able to otherwise afford it."

"If it wasn't for the insurance," Kaitlyn said, "I would not be here today sharing with you my experience of strength and hope. I would have been the one leaving my child motherless. Or just another statistic stuck behind prison walls while my addiction grew worse."

Ethan said that after all else failed, the access to treatment that the program provided has enabled him to shake his addiction and open a small business.

"it is getting us all back to becoming better people," he said, "working, paying taxes, obeying the law and helping others."

Both Jeff and Ethan noted that while they qualify for various kinds of public assistance, they receive only what they require. Jeff said he is eligible for food stamps, but does not receive them.

"I work 60 hours a week. I'm not always going to rely on Medicaid," he said. "It's helping me now stay clean and sober, but I'm going to use it only as I need it to rebuild my life."

"What I need, I take advantage of," Ethan said simply. "What I don't need, I don't take."

Officer Eric Adams of the Laconia Police Department, who is assigned exclusively to working to set addicts on the road to recovery, described the New Hampshire Health Protection Program as "a tool for law enforcement." He explained that most of the addicts he encounters have no health insurance, though they frequently suffer from poor health. Enrolling in the program provides access not only to treatment for their addiction, but also to comprehensive health care services., which Adams said "gives them a greater sense of self-worth." He called the program "a tool for law enforcement," which, if abandoned, "will really take a toll on everybody, not just those with addictions."

Likewise Jacqui Abikoff, executive director of Horizons Counseling Center in Gilford, noted that "medical issues can drive addiction" and the program ensures that addicts "get the health care they need to support their recovery. They know they have something in hand they can use."

Jeff, who now identifies himself as "a son, a brother, a grandson, a nephew, a father and a friend," asked "if access to treatment is what saves lives, keeps families from feeling the never-ending pain of loss and ultimately makes a community whole again, isn't it worth keeping a program that makes that treatment available?"


CAPTION: Officer Eric Adams of the Laconia Police Department, left, and Jacqui Abikoff, executive director of Horizons Counseling Center, next to him, joined recovering addicts Kaitlyn and Jeff to stress the role of the New Hampshire Health Protection Program in providing access to treatment for substance abuse hosted by New Futures, whose communications director, Joe Gallagher is at right. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Michael Kitch)