When someone addicted to heroin or prescription wants to quit, the first step is to find a detox center where they can safely go through withdrawals from the drug, but people in northern New Mexico who are trying to get help often can’t find it.
When Española native Erin Borrego was 15, she and her classmates started experimenting with opioid painkillers. It started with pills called Percocet and Lortab.
“From 15-18, each year it escalated. Sixteen was Percs and Lortabs, 17 was OxyContin," she said, "and then it went up to, I immediately started injecting heroin."
Borrego said as her addiction progressed, she started losing control of her life. Finally she enrolled in a 90-day program at Hoy Recovery, a detox and treatment center just north of Española—and she said the program has turned her life around.
But most of her childhood friends haven’t had the same luck.
“My best friend from kindergarten is using. Every single one of my best friends are out there,” she said. “They are very good people, and their lives need to be saved, and they’re not scumbags and awful people that deserve to die. We deserve to live.”
Even though Española has one of the highest heroin overdose rates in America, help for people struggling with addiction can be almost impossible to find. Hoy Recovery Center is the only detox service in the county, and they are almost always full.
“It is a marathon that we’re fighting right now,” said Ambrose Baros, director of Hoy. “This is an epidemic, this is generational, and it’s gotten worse throughout the years in many aspects. So yeah, we may help a few, but there’s still a lot out there that need the support, and we’re not engaging them as effectively as we’d like.”
There are a lot of reasons for that, but probably the biggest one is funding. Detox providers like Hoy rely on state money, and after a $4 million cut to the New Mexico Human Services Department last year, Baros said money has dried up.
“The service that we’re providing right now isn’t funded at all. So what that means for us, now that we’re providing that service, we don’t have a code to bill from the state,” he said.
In other words, Hoy is having to take money from other programs and services until it can find more funding for detox.
But that’s just one of the obstacles for people wanting to get off heroin. Hoy is what’s called social detox—they’re only allowed to take patients with mild withdrawal symptoms. It’s a tightly regulated service. Taking more than one drug at once, like Xanax and heroin? You might not be allowed in. That leaves a lot of people with nowhere to go.
Abe Gordon is a counselor at Inside Out Recovery in Española, a group that tries to find openings in detox centers for people trying to get into treatment.
Gordon said that nine times out of 10, when someone comes in asking for help, there is nowhere to send them.
A lot of times, people trying to get clean need to detox in a hospital, he added. But the only hospitals that provide detox services are in Albuquerque and Santa Fe—and they are often full, too.
“The thing about getting somebody into detox is that when they are ready, if it’s not available at that time, then there’s a very good possibility that we lose that person forever,” Gordon said. “They lose hope, or they go out and then end up doing a fatal dose.”
Gordon and the other staff members at Inside Out have seen people die of a heroin overdose after trying to get treatment. And until more money becomes available for hospital-based medical detox in the area, and even social detox programs like Hoy, Gordon said they can only expect to see more.
“Put more funding into Hoy!" he urged. "Give them the help they need to expand, to allow more people to come in! It doesn’t make sense to me why they don’t think about putting money into detox centers. I mean it just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just so necessary for our area here.”
Ironically, now that the opioid epidemic has spread to the rest of the country, there might be a ray of hope.
“Watching this crisis grow to so many other states has been really heart-wrenching,” said New Mexico U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich. “The only good that came out of it, however, is that those of us who struggled with this issue for a long time like New Mexico now suddenly had a lot of allies around the country who saw what this can do to families, who see it in their communities on a first-name basis. And that changed the debate.”
Changed the debate so much, Heinrich said, that late last year a usually gridlocked Congress passed a sweeping bipartisan health care bill called the 21st Century Cures Act, which promises $1 billion nationally to fund programs like the ones that are so needed in Española.
That could mean millions for detox and treatment in New Mexico—not enough to solve the problem, but advocates say it’s certainly a welcome start.
This series, Enduring Addiction, was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the Center for Health Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.