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The high cost of battling heroin addiction
Budget cuts, long waiting lists batter public facilities
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/31/2009 12:00 AM

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If your child is addicted to heroin, and you can't afford thousands of dollars a month for a private drug treatment program, your only option is to get on a weeks- or months-long waiting list for a publicly funded program.

And those waiting lists are getting longer. Faced with an $11 billion budget deficit, the state of Illinois cut funding for drug treatment programs by 17 percent on July 1.

The Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association estimates the cuts were far greater - an estimated 22 percent, or $24.1 million.

More cuts are looming, and with the state already behind on its payments, association spokeswoman Sara Moscoto Howe said many local drug treatment programs have been forced to scale back their services.

As a result, more than 7,500 people needing addiction services were put on waiting lists this year, and that number could swell to 16,466 people in 2010, the association estimates.

Free or affordable drug addiction treatment is still available - the state helped 90,000 people with substance abuse problems in 2009 - but waiting for treatment can prove deadly, especially with a highly addictive and dangerous drug like heroin, which police say is becoming more popular in the suburbs.

More than 100 people have died of a heroin overdose in the suburbs alone this year, a toll that draws far less public attention than the 79 deaths statewide from H1N1 flu.

The only alternative for desperate families that can't wait for treatment is to pay out-of-pocket for pricey, private programs.

A privately run, residential drug rehabilitation center costs about $30,000 for a 90-day program, said Mike Loverde, an addictions counselor and interventionist with Family First Intervention in Orland Park. A few swanky, spalike places in California cost more than $40,000 a month.

Those who can't afford that - including middle-income families and people with limited health insurance coverage - end up waiting, or in some cases, doing nothing.

Suburban drug treatment center staff members say they want to do more to help this problem but their hands are tied. While most facilities are funded by a combination of sources, including federal, state, county and private monies, the disappearing public funds are putting the squeeze on them.

"It's extremely scary," said Dr. David Tews, president and CEO at Serenity House in Addison, a 44-bed treatment center that receives half its funding from the state. "We already ended our Spanish program. Cut a program that helped families. We cut two full-time staff members. And that was just to keep our halfway houses and treatment center going."

Serenity House's waiting list is now about 20 people, Tews said.

While fees vary depending on a person's circumstances, it costs roughly $120 a week for room, board and counseling at Serenity House, Tews said. By comparison, a private facility can cost upward of $2,300 per week.

In Illinois, the number of privately run drug treatment facilities is growing while the number of public ones declines, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports.

Private drug rehab can cost more than a college education, but Loverde believes it's the best way to help someone struggling with a heroin addiction. While many publicly funded drug treatment programs last 30 days, Loverde said it's important to take addicts out of their environments and give them a minimum of 90 days to develop new routines, followed by 90 days in a halfway house.

To try to do it any quicker, or to let the addict return to the old environment and friends, usually spells disaster, he said.

He would know. Loverde, a Des Plaines native and Elk Grove High School alumnus, ascended to a job with a Big 5 accounting firm only to end up homeless and addicted to heroin. He said he went to short-term, government-funded suburban programs 19 times before his family sent him to a halfway house for six months and he got clean.

Phil Capone, a 20-year-old from Vernon Hills, recently completed a year in a $5,400-a-month private rehabilitation facility in Arizona and is now drug-free, living with his brother in Chicago, and "doing great," his mother, Mary Jo, reports.

Regardless of income level, people struggling with addiction should never feel like there are no options, said Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a statewide nonprofit organization that helps people with drug and mental problems. She's seen countless people use government-funded programs to kick their drug habits and get their lives back on track.

"People are cutting back and reducing the number of clients they serve ... but services continue to be offered. You can get help. It's about persistence. Yes, there are waiting lists. But keep at it," Rodriguez said. "Don't give up. The treatment is out there."