ATLANTIC CITY — Every Monday morning, Scott Gras stops by the nurses’ station inside AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and asks if anyone came into the emergency room over the weekend from an opioid overdose.

He’s not a nurse, a doctor, psychologist or a licensed medical professional, but as an opioid overdose program recovery specialist, Gras draws from his personal experience with addiction to help others who come into hospital emergency rooms after coming close to death.

AtlantiCare established a recovery coach program for Atlantic County in March after Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year announced an expansion of the statewide Opioid Overdose Recovery Program to additional counties struggling with high overdose rates and a growing epidemic.

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“The important thing to keep in mind is that the number of people showing up in ERs with overdoses was ever-increasing,” said Loyal Ownes, senior director of clinical services at AtlantiCare Behavioral Health. “The number of people suffering from heroin addiction has been growing exponentially.”

The recovery coach program puts specialists such as Gras in direct contact with emergency room patients following an overdose reversal with naloxone, the lifesaving anti-opioid drug. The goal is to better link people to treatment and recovery services in the community.

The increase in people suffering from opioid addiction, Ownes said, has been reflected in the rising number of overdose cases seen in South Jersey hospital emergency rooms.

Nationally, overdose deaths eclipse both deaths by firearms and motor vehicles, becoming the leading cause of injury. There were 8,007 statewide administrations of naloxone in 2016, according to State Police data.

Recovery coach program contracts, awarded by the state Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services, were first approved in Camden, Essex, Monmouth, Ocean and Passaic counties in 2015.

Christie announced in January an additional $1.7 million in state funding would go to counties in the form of grants to develop more programs. Contracts for Atlantic, Bergen, Gloucester, Middlesex, Hudson and Mercer counties were awarded in 2016.

AtlantiCare’s recovery experts, currently at six coaches and other team members, respond to all emergency rooms in the county, including Shore Medical Center in Somers Point.

At minimum, all state programs require specialists to be on call for 84 hours per week from 7 p.m. Thursday through 7 a.m. Monday. In addition to being on-call, Gras works during the week, visiting patients and their families.

“I introduce myself and try to gain some kind of trust with that person,” he said. “I’m in recovery myself, so I usually identify with patients right away. Gaining trust is huge, and as soon as you engage them, it opens the door to communication. I can then find out their needs and wants.”

There are people who don’t want help at all, Gras said, but some ask to be connected to 12-step programs or outpatient services.

For others, “they hit bottom, they’ve been doing this so long and they have nothing left, so they beg you to go to treatment, and we get those referrals in motion,” Gras said.

Joanne Arnold Velcheck, director of addiction services at AtlantiCare, said the health system already offers patients outpatient programs in Atlantic City, Hammonton and Egg Harbor Township but can refer patients to other treatment providers based on their needs.

Lisa Celebre, program manager for AtlantiCare’s recovery coach program, said helping overdose patients who come through the ER also may involve assistance with regaining identification and medical insurance, which sometimes prevent a person from getting treatment.

Ownes said he’s hopeful the program will eventually lead to more people getting into treatment programs and less of the same people coming into ERs with overdoses. As health providers, he said they have taken on the responsibility to help people in the growing epidemic.

Even if patients don’t choose to connect with services when they are presented by a recovery coach after their overdose, Gras said he hopes they hold onto what he has to say for the future.

“Once they come in here, whether it’s the first, second, third or fourth time, the seed is planted,” Gras said. “A specialist can provide information that a patient needs. They know, in the back of their minds, that even if they don’t come in with an overdose again, they can call a recovery specialist later and get the help they need.”

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609-272-7022 Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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