Mobile Treatment Vans Show Promise in Fighting Opioid Epidemic

By Paul Gaita 06/06/18

A successful program in Western New York has drawn attention from state and national health organizations seeking to replicate its positive response in their own communities.

a van driving down the road

A New York-based health and behavioral service is reporting encouraging results in its innovative mobile outreach program.

Buffalo's BestSelf Behavioral Health has equipped two vans, each with a medical team and technology to connect individuals with health professionals via webcam, and dispatched them throughout Western New York to assist individuals who need assistance with opioid dependency issues.

The program, which was recently profiled on NBC Nightly News, has also drawn attention from state and national health organizations seeking to replicate its positive response in their own communities.

Key to the vans' success rate is the presence of three team members—a nurse, a counselor and a peer specialist—who can provide not only guidance but also a prescription for medical treatment, if necessary.

The immediacy of response and assistance distinguishes the mobile units' ability to impact those in need. "Delay is problematic," said BestSelf CEO Howard Hitzel. "Read accessibility to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has made the difference."

Peer specialists like Mona Lisa MacEachin, who struggled with substance dependency, who was featured in the NBC profile, are another crucial component in linking individuals with much-needed aid.

"These are people in recovery, and I think what's unique about them is that they've been there," Hitzel told Buffalo's NBC affiliate, WGRZ.

The vans have also become an important component for hospitals and law enforcement in providing assistance to individuals in need of treatment; both units can be found outside emergency rooms and jails throughout Erie and Niagara Counties.

"It was really important for us to try to look for a way to have that soft handoff to make sure that the recovery continued after the release," said Deputy Chief Daniel Engert with the Niagara County Sheriff's Office. 

As WGRZ noted, the vans have also made bus stations and libraries a frequent stop on their rounds throughout urban and suburban areas. "Our team is very adept at knowing communities or areas where people who have substance abuse problems are, so they'll do street outreach, essentially," explained Hitzel.

Other cities and states have implemented tangentially similar programs, such as the Substance Use Recovery Response Team (SURRT) in Missouri, where paramedics link patients with after-care options following an overdose call.

Hitzel believes that his mobile unit program is a unique entity in the fight against the opioid crisis, and he's hearing from other organizations across the country to learn how they can adopt similar strategies.

"I don't think anybody is doing the mobile units like we are, the fully mobile office," he told WGRZ. "I think that these kinds of efforts where we're really being more assertive about finding people are going to help a lot."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.