Avi Israel

Avi Israel of Buffalo, whose son Michael was addicted to opioids when he committed suicide in 2011, formed Save the Michaels of the World to help addicts get treatment and educates families of addicts. He spoke Friday to members of the Cattaraugus County Heroin/Opioid Task Force, offering to expand the program in this county.

OLEAN — It’s been a long time since members of the Cattaraugus County Heroin/Opioid Task Force had heard  some good news.

On Friday, Avi Israel of Buffalo, founder of Save the Michaels of the World, gave some hope to county agencies and others who have been battling the opioid epidemic for years.

Israel, who lost his opioid addicted son Michael to suicide in June 2011, described “the hardest thing for a parent when you have to make funeral plans for your kid.”

He said his son wasn’t getting his drugs from the streets, but prescriptions for opioids from three different doctors.

“We had no idea what an opioid addict looked like,” Israel said. “They look like someone in your family. It touches everyone.”

The biggest obstacle to treatment is bureaucracy from insurance companies to doctors to treatment providers, he said, including a lack of understanding and assistance.

“No one knew how to treat Michael. We were told to change the locks and keep him out of the house. No one educated us about addiction. No one told us how to talk to Michael. No one told us anything.”

His son had called his counselor on June 4, 2011. and asked to be admitted to a detox facility. The counselor replied that there were no beds. Five minutes later, he shot himself.

“When you kneel next to your son and see him bleed to death, you want to do something to change things so there are no more Michaels,” Israel said.

After burying his son, he set to work to try to get more treatment beds in Western New York. “When we started, there were 25 beds. Now there are 200.”

Israel said his organization can get most addicts into a treatment facility within two hours. He made the offer to the agencies to call Save the Michaels of the World when they have someone who needs a bed.

A lack of follow-up treatment leaves addicts at danger of relapsing, Israel said. The National Institute of Health reported 56 percent of people relapse within a week after treatment, and 92 percent relapse within six months of completing treatment.

With grants from the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), Israel last May hired a case manager to assist with placing people in treatment and connect their families with Save the Michaels recovery coaches.

In the next seven months, Save the Michaels assisted 96 families. Forty-eight individuals were placed in treatment, 28 were placed in medically-assisted treatment and 17 were placed in supportive housing. Save the Michaels has 38 OASAS-trained recovery coaches and has connected those coaches with 45 families, Israel said.

The office makes calls to clients and family members. Recovery coaches are called if the client or their family report any problems.

Save the Michaels has a 9 percent relapse rate (six relapses) in its first eight months.

One key is to have a plan when an addict is coming out of treatment — support for the family as well as the individual being treated for addiction.

“We show some compassion,” Israel said of Save the Michaels. “We show some love and help the people. We advocate for people in treatment and connect them with peer advocates. We make sure they have a place to go.”

Israel said he is now working against advice he was given when he was helping his son, which was to be tougher and less compassionate than the family wanted to be. Israel said the Save the Michaels staff tells families to call if they are having a weak moment.

“I hope more communities will use this approach instead of the tough love approach,” he said.

Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin D. Watkins, co-chairman of the Heroin/Opioid Task Force, thanked Israel for his presentation and for being an added resource in the county’s opioid addiction battle.

Israel said, “If you need some help placing someone, please call us. It is important to get support going through recovery.”

Mary O’Leary, director of the county’s Community Services Department and also a co-chair of the task force, credited Israel with pushing state lawmakers in 2012 to pass New York’s ISTOP prescription monitoring program that can spot someone seeking multiple prescriptions from separate doctors.

Cattaraugus County recorded 14 heroin/opioid deaths last year, the same as in 2016. Since July, however, Watkins said, the deaths seem to have plateaued. So far this year there has been one heroin overdose in the county, he said.

Watkins said one reason for the downturn in opioid-related deaths is Narcan, the opioid antidote carried by first responders, police and family members of people addicted to opioids.

Another reason for the downward trend, Watkins said, is the increased number of treatment programs and treatment facility beds. In addition, the Council on Addiction Recovery Services (CAReS) is building a new facility with 20 treatment beds in Westons Mills.

CAReS, which hopes to open the new facility in late summer, has stepped up with new client-centered services. They have also applied to expand the new services to satellite offices in Salamanca, Gowanda and Delevan.

Salamanca Police Chief Troy Westfall, who along the Gowanda Police Department began offering addicts treatment instead of arrest nearly two years ago, said other agencies have largely taken that over.

“It was so frustrating when we started,” he said. “You couldn’t find a bed (locally) anywhere.”

Pete Wilson, a Seneca Strong social worker, said the Seneca Nation is making great strides on both the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories using peer recovery coaches and other measures.

There were 221 people referred to the Seneca Strong program last year, with 127 seeking inpatient services and the rest outpatient. There are six peer coaches on each territory, he said.

With help from Save the Michaels, the Nation has been able to place people in treatment beds in hours. Another program the Senecas are looking into is diverting addicts from the judicial system and straight into treatment, Wilson explained.

“I can’t wait until we get more peer coches out in the community,” he said.

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)

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