Warm Handoff Program Helps Overdose Survivors Go From Hospital to Treatment

By Seth Ferranti 11/02/16

One of the program's goals is to educate healthcare professionals on the shame and stigma that those dealing with addiction face. 

Warm Handoff Program Helps Overdose Survivors Go From Hospital to Treatment

Since 2014, when the heroin antidote naloxone was supplied to first responders in Pennsylvania, authorities there have reversed more than 1,600 opioid overdoses. But the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) felt that lives were only being saved to put substance users back out on the streets.

The protocol has been to release overdose victims after they stabilize and refer them to a treatment service provider—alleviating the short-term problem of immediate death. But state officials say this isn't enough to aid long-term recovery.

To address that issue, the DDAP has started a new program, "Warm Handoff," that transfers survivors right from their hospital bed to a treatment bed. 

“There is a very high risk of a repeat overdose in the period right after a person leaves the emergency room for a drug overdose,” Gary Tennis, Secretary of the Pennsylvania DDAP, told DrugFree.org. “Our aim is to avoid that risk by getting the survivor directly to treatment without hitting the street at all. You wouldn’t just hand someone who had a massive heart attack a cardiologist’s card and say, ‘Here, go set up an appointment with this person.’ The hospital immediately starts the patient on the next level of care to get them better, or else they could die. The same should be true of overdose survivors.”

It's a novel idea and welcome shift. The DDAP studied different programs around the country and developed its own harm reduction-based model that addresses addiction as a health problem instead of a criminal one. 

“We told them they have to reach out to every hospital ER in their county and set up some type of protocol for warm handoff,” Tennis said. “Who is involved can vary. It can be a certified recovery specialist from a treatment center, a hospital social worker or a government employee. In some cases, the warm handoff is handled by a person in recovery themselves, who can relate to what the patient is going through.”

By getting health professionals to treat OD victims as people, instead of junkies that need to be thrown back on the street, the DDAP hopes to de-stigmatize the substance user's transition into a healthy recovery.

“We talk to them about treating these individuals with respect and caring, as people of value,” Tennis says. “We are in an all-out campaign to increase the treatment infrastructure in Pennsylvania. We must understand that if a drug overdose survivor is released onto the street, their lives are in great jeopardy.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.