Pill to the needle to the grave: Does gov’s new opioid plan do enough?

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Avondale mom Shannon Neitch lost her son Scott three years ago this August. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Avondale mom Shannon Neitch lost her son Scott three years ago this August. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Neitch's son Scott.  (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Neitch's son Scott. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Governor Ducey says new legislation is a start, not the end, in the fight against opioids. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Governor Ducey says new legislation is a start, not the end, in the fight against opioids. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

With more than three opioid overdose deaths across Arizona every day, and 115 nationwide, addiction is all around us.

Teens, popping pills at school.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Opioid crisis in Arizona]

Neighbors, turning to needles.

Parents, shooting up in front of their kids in cars.

Avondale mom Shannon Neitch lost her son Scott three years ago this August.

[VIDEO: ‘They’re as good as dead if we don’t do something now’]

“I told him that his father and I would never survive losing him. He promised that wouldn’t happen. That’s a hell of a promise to break to your mother,” said Neitch.

Broken promises.

Broken hearts.

The pull, turning loved ones into liars, thieves, strangers and angels.

“I don’t want another parent to have to go through what I went through,” said Neitch.

That’s why she is so upset by the new Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act.

The governor called a special session in January with a task force made up of concerned citizens, city leaders and substance abuse experts and providers to, in his words “attack this issue from all angles, while protecting individuals who suffer from chronic pain, and maintaining compassion for those struggling with addiction.”

[VIDEO: Gov. Doug Ducey responds to criticisms of Arizona's opioid plan]

Neitch and many others are worried the new law, approved unanimously by both state house and senate lawmakers, doesn’t do enough to help Arizona families fighting addiction right now.

It comes with a big push to limit prescription opiates.

But without any provisions to safely taper or wean patients who are already dependent, Neitch worries that will only drive millions to the needle, then the grave, faster.

She says state lawmakers cracking down on prescription pain pills to stop our opioid epidemic seem to have overlooked simple cause and effect, unleashing, she fears, another crisis.

“What we’re really not addressing is the next half. What happened to all those opioid addicts? They’re becoming addicts of something else. And it’s something, far worse,” said Neitch.

Her son Scott got hooked on pain meds after an ATV accident.

Studies show you have a 60 percent risk of addiction after just six days. Just one reason the governor put a five-day cap on pain narcotics for first-time prescriptions.

Scott’s doctor had him on them for five years.

[RELATED: Report: Highest opioid overdose deaths in AZ in 10 years]

“I’m not sure anybody who’s making these decisions has ever been there,” Neitch said.

She says her son once went through a 30-day supply in just 26 hours.

And when Rehab didn’t work and his doctor cut him off, like millions of others, he turned to heroin.

“So, we traded the pills for the needle,” said Neitch.

Scott didn’t make it.

“I will never watch him become the man he should have been, fall in love, get married, have children,” Neitch said.

Five of his friends are dead now too, having overdosed in just the last two years.

Roxane Jueckstock’s son Zach was one of them.

“When I think about an addict, I don’t think of somebody like my son,” Jueckstock said.

“He was such a jokester, a goodhearted person,” she said.

“He knew he was eventually going to get off of it,” said Jueckstock.

Instead, Jan. 20, 2017, police found Zach slumped behind the wheel of his car, left running in the rain in a grocery store parking lot in Scottsdale.

“They gave him two shots of Narcan, but it was too late,” Jueckstock said.

Since then, Gov. Ducey’s expanded access of the life-saving opioid reversal drug to more officers and supporting emergency care agencies.

Now, all Scottsdale patrol officers have it in their squad cars.

[RELATED: ER visits for opioid overdose up 30%, CDC says]

State health experts say 86 percent of opioid overdose patients survived because they were given Narcan before being admitted to the hospital.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that my son would be doing the drugs that would eventually take his life I would have never believed it. Never!” said Jueckstock.

She says her son started popping pills with friends at school.

Opioids have an 80 percent relapse rate in the first year.

She says Zach went to rehab at least five different times.

“He hated it. He wished he never would have started it. He told me, ‘When I’m doing the drug, I hate myself,'” said Jueckstock.

David Larimer is the clinical program director at Scottsdale Recovery Center, the last place Zach went for help.

“I know somebody who has six friends who are dead because of this!” said Larimer.

There are no real success rate statistics for opioid recovery because addicts will always be in recovery, but Larimer says less than 10 percent of their clients leave without completing their suggested treatment.

He helped draft the national best practices for treatment 17 years ago and says this is not a public health issue alone.

“This is a multi-billion-dollar problem,” Larimer said.

“We are a country that medicates. And we need to take a closer look at the pre-existing conditions patients are coming in with because addiction is a symptom,” said Larimer.

He says 95 percent of his patients also have some mental health issue and 99 percent are dealing with trauma from their past.

[RELATED: Arizona health officials launch real-time, comprehensive opioid hotline for medical providers]

While he agrees with Neitch that we shouldn’t ignore the addicts already hooked, he says we also have a responsibility to stop the next wave.

“We’ve known for 25 years, prevention is more effective than treatment and yet we continue nationally to underfund prevention!” he said.

Larimer suggests we try something shocking like the "faces of meth" campaign.

“Young people didn't like having that look and it dramatically impacted the meth use. Those are the kinds of public service announcements we have to go back to, because we know they work,” Larimer said.

He says people need to understand the opioid equation: pills- to the needle- to the grave.

“The statistics are staggering!” Larimer said

Almost always at capacity, SRC just opened two more recovery houses.

And multiplying demand, the governor’s plan, now requires hospitals to make a referral to rehab, any time they treat a patient for an opioid overdose.

“We don’t have enough beds, there aren’t enough facilities, there aren’t enough clinicians,” said Neitch.

She knows.

She called around many times trying to get Scott help and was told, “Wait 9 hours, wait 12 hours, wait three days, wait a week. You don’t have a week! You don’t have three days!” Neitch said.

They had to go out of state for rehab.

And even then, found a disturbing dead end.

“Most of the professionals I talk to, the professionals that should have had the answers I didn’t, really had nothing to offer me,” Neitch said.

She says even she got pushed to a pain clinic after she had a car accident.

Not to manage her pain, but to manage her pain meds.

And the last time the feds cracked down on opioid limits, she says her doctor told her that to keep up her dosing, (about three times what the state’s new plan suggests), they simply needed to “find another body part.”

The governor’s plan has loopholes to the dosing limits if board certified specialists sign-off on higher dosing on a case-by-case basis.

“What are we doing about that? I hear no plan,” she said.

If not the needle, what are the options for those who are already hooked?

“That's what I want the decision makers to hear loud and clear. We have millions of people sitting there, going, what now?' Neitch said.

She was eventually able to wean herself off seven years of controlled pain meds, but says don’t mistake the willpower of a grieving mother for the norm.

"You can’t imagine what it’s like to have a dependency on a drug like oxycodone,” said Neitch.

“I managed to save myself and I couldn’t save him.  That’s very hard to deal with, very, very hard. I worked harder at saving him & I failed, but I saved myself. I don’t understand that,” she said.

Releasing balloons on Zach’s “angel-versary,” two months ago, Roxane Jueckstock, says she isn’t letting go of the fight.

As a nurse practitioner, she got the new clinic she’s working at to stop giving opioids to patients.

“Now I won't have to worry about writing that prescription for somebody who could become addicted or will have it in the house and their children can get a hold of it,” Jueckstock said.

“I don't want you to know. I don't want them to know what it's like, I don't,” said Neitch.

Neitch doesn’t fault state leaders for not knowing her hell.

She just doesn’t know how they didn’t see it coming a decade ago and hopes they’re not simply writing off the Scotts and Zachs out there right now, hiding their pain in plain sight, one high away from being tomorrow’s statistic.

“Our present is staring us in the face, and it’s terrifying,” said Neitch.

Governor’s response

The governor denied our request for a sit-down interview.

[RELATED: Arizona governor signs law he sought to target opioid abuse]

We caught up with him after an unrelated news conference and asked about one of the biggest apparent oversights; families, being put on waiting lists and being turned away because there aren’t enough beds in rehab right now.

“We just signed the Opioid Epidemic Act days ago. We think it is the most aggressive, thorough, thoughtful legislation that’s been introduced in years and years. This is a crisis,” Gov. Ducey said.  

“To get an addict to go into a rehab facility, that’s like climbing Mount Everest, but once you get them there, once they say yes in any capacity, timing, it’s paramount!” said Neitch.

Gov. Ducey says this new legislation is a start, not the end, in the fight against opioids.

[RELATED: State health officials release opioid action plan]

His plan puts a strong focus on prevention.

Some of the highlights:  

  • A five-day limit on first-time fills.
  • Red warning caps on opioid prescriptions showing patients they’re highly addictive.
  • More training for clinicians on responsible dosing.
  • Eighteen new Dump the Drug drop boxes where you can safely dispose of old prescription pills so they’re not sitting around, unaccounted for in your home medicine cabinet. Here’s a link to more than 150 locations across Arizona.
  • And more oversight at pharmacies & pain clinics.

Neitch understands the obligation to prevent and protect but wishes the priority were the families already in crisis.

“What are you going to do with the fact that you have people dying right now?” Neitch said.

Ducey's team says there is still plenty in the fine print for families in crisis to get help now like:

  • Increased access to Narcan to reverse ODs.
  • Expanding the state’s Good Samaritan Law to give immunity to anyone who reports an overdose. Arizona had previously been one of only 10 states that didn’t offer this protection.
  • The Angel Initiative where addicts can surrender their drugs and keep their kids out of the foster care system if they go through rehab.
  • And $10,000,000 for under and uninsured patients for addiction treatment.

“That doesn’t even scratch the surface of where we’re really at,” said Neitch.

She says that money’s going to dry up really fast.

Her son’s first stint in rehab, for instance, cost $22,000. And that was just for the admission.

He went through seven structured programs.

It’s too late for her son, but not for other families.

The governor’s office says the next frontier, is focusing on the shortfalls in treatment access, affordability and availability.

“As we get feedback, as we find ways we can do things better we’ll figure it out. I mean, that’s why I called a special session,” said Ducey.

Last year, he ordered real-time overdose tracking.

Now, he’s ordered the state Department of Health Services to focus on treatment facilities; how many beds and how often at capacity, with quarterly reports to give state leaders a better grasp on gaps in treatment, the next big obstacle to tackle in the opioid crisis.

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Nicole CritesNicole Crites anchors "Good Evening Arizona" weeknights 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on 3TV with Brandon Lee.

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Nicole Crites

The two- time Emmy award winner has been telling stories about Valley newsmakers and trends for more than a decade. Before joining 3TV's "Good Evening Arizona" team, she was the morning news anchor at KPHO-TV in Phoenix.

Nicole loves meeting new people every day and finding ways to bring context to news unfolding in our community and our world.

A wife and mother of two little ones, Nicole is always exploring Arizona to uncover exciting adventures to share. She grew up in a big family, one of six kids in Tucson.

She graduated from the University of Arizona. Work and early internships took her from Manhattan to Spokane, WA, back to Arizona, where she and her high school sweetheart settled to start a family.

Nicole loves to read and keep busy with community service and crafts, like quilting baby blankets, something her mom taught her in elementary school.  

Nicole's passion for storytelling and helping others is why she got into journalism.

She won an Emmy for her field anchoring of the deadly Tucson shooting and assassination attempt of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and another for her KPHO "Keeping the Promise" series on military struggles and success profiles.

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