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Families play dangerous waiting game to get treatment for heroin addiction

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — FOX59 showed you a series of stories highlighting just how bad the heroin epidemic is in central Indiana.

Our team rode along with first responders, the antidote angels, while they administered lifesaving doses of naloxone to patients overdosing on heroin.

Then, FOX59 showed you the story of a man recovering from a heroin addiction and how more resources are needed to battle the epidemic at its core.

After seeing the stories, an Indianapolis woman was inspired to tell the story of her son who she lost to a drug overdose. After looking into the problems this family faced, FOX59’s Shannon Houser found a critical need for more treatment options that come at an affordable price to desperate families in need.

"I found out in May of 2015, when I got a call from the school principal that I needed to come to the school and pick him up," said Erica Watkins.

It was that call, the call from her son Joey’s school that changed Erica’s life forever. Little did she know at the time, it would be a year full of struggles and heartbreak.

"His senior year of high school, I could tell that he was having trouble with depression and his grades were failing," she said.

She found out Joey, her only child, was addicted to heroin.

"I felt totally blindsided. I didn’t know what to expect," Erica said.

Erica rushed Joey to the hospital, hoping to get him help and treatment, but she said he was denied.

"The way it was explained to me was that his withdrawals were not serious enough for them to make it medically necessary for him to be admitted," she explained.

Joey was shut out of a critical opportunity to change the dangerous path he was on. Erica said they tried again, and again, and again to get him the help he desperately needed. Each time, she was given a different answer. Erica says programs told her Joey wasn’t sick enough, there weren’t enough beds available, or the facilities were too expense.

"Being a single mother and at that point, I wasn’t working due to the stress of his heroin addiction, I didn’t have the means to provide that deposit," she said.

Almost one year after searching for help, Erica’s worst fears came to life.

"I knocked on his door and he didn’t answer. I knocked again and he didn’t answer and I opened his door and found him on his bed and he was barely alive," said Erica.

Joey overdosed, likely from a heroin-fentanyl combo. He died a few days later in the hospital. He was just 19 years old.

The struggles this family faced aren’t unique. Thousands of Hoosiers are dealing with the same grief, met by the nearly impossible challenge of simply getting help.

In 2015, more than 1,000 Hoosiers died from drug use. Senator Jim Merritt (R- Indianapolis) said it’s not a surprise to him that Joey couldn’t get help, even though he wanted it.

"There is a real vacancy of available treatment for those individuals who come forward voluntarily," Merritt said. "We don’t know where our assets are. We don’t know how many beds we have. We don’t know how many drug addicts we actually have."

According to statistics from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, more than 19,000 people were treated in 2016 for addiction in an in-patient facility. That number grew by more than 8,000 from 2014. The numbers highlight the crucial need for more treatment centers in the state.

Bridges of Hope opened in Anderson earlier this year. Director Karl Lazar said the demand for a new facility in the area was evident.

"It’s devastated, both economically and with drug problems," he said.

The facility offers 29 residential beds. Eight are sectioned off for detox and 21 are for residential level of care. Right now, their beds are about half full. Lazar said they could fill more beds and help more people, if only patients could afford the treatment.

There’s no "average cost" for heroin addiction treatment. Most facilities operate on a sliding scale depending on need and insurance. If you pay out of pocket, you can expect a price tag of anywhere between $7,000 and $30,000 for detox, in-patient and residential treatment.

"I got into this business to help people like me and when you have to turn people away because of that, it doesn’t feel good," Lazar said.

There are serious concerns about Medicaid’s current policies in Indiana, preventing hundreds of Hoosiers from receiving in-patient treatment. Right now, Medicaid doesn’t pay for in-patient treatment at facilities that have more than 16 beds.

Lawmakers and organizations like FSSA are trying to change that. The state is waiting to hear back on a waiver that would allow Medicaid to fund treatment at state certified facilities like Bridges of Hope.

Dr. Jennifer Walthall is the secretary of FSSA. She said they’re confident The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services will approve the waiver.

"It becomes a vehicle for really expanding the fight that we’re all in together," Dr. Walthall said. "Indiana has the opportunity to lead in this. I think there are many other states that can look to us and say, okay they were in the thick of it, and here’s how they responded."

The approval of the waiver could be a game changer for the state, lowering the cost of treatment and increasing the amount of beds available for patients.

"It gives access to 15 new facilities and possibly increased capacity at 12 other existing places," Dr. Walthall explained.

The hope for affordable treatment comes too late for Joey.

"I think he would still be alive today," Erica said.

Her hope is that other families can seek treatment the moment they need it, despite cost.

"Recovery costs a lot less than an ICU visit," she said.

For more on Bridges of Hope, click here. Click here for a list of state certified treatment facilities.

On Monday, more than $10 million went into effect to help support addiction treatment and prevention. For more on the 21st Century Cures funds, click here.