Drug and alcohol abuse in your back yard
SANTA ANA Orange County spends some $40 million a year on running programs that prevent, treat and rehabilitate drug and alcohol abusers. And this year for the first time, the Health Care Agency published a public report that illustrates who is getting treatment, where they live and their poison of choice.
The numbers even reflect whether treatment is working, thanks to changes in how the state collects data about patients in publicly funded treatment programs.
Drug addiction is complex and difficult to overcome — it’s a disease that over time changes the brain, affecting a person’s self control and ability to make sound decisions, while sending intense impulses to take drugs again. Similar to chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease, it’s not uncommon for patients to relapse — a signal that treatment should be reinstated or adjusted, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Orange County officials see their findings as a victory. About 36 percent of adults 18 and over who reported using drugs up to 20 days in the month before entering treatment were clean for at least a month by the time they were discharged from their programs. Some 62 percent fewer had been arrested, and 18 percent more had a job.
“It really does show that treatment works,” says Brett O’Brien, manager for the county Health Care Agency’s alcohol and drug abuse services division. “There’s a significant decrease of drug use. The criminal involvement, as a result of being involved in treatment, is reduced.”
The report paints a startling picture of substance abuse across the county. For example, areas of Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster had a higher concentration of people getting treatment than anywhere else in the county, while only three ZIP codes south of Costa Mesa had more than 300 patients enrolled over a three-year period.
Additionally, more than twice as many men use publicly funded rehabilitation services here than women. While that’s in line with a statewide trend, the divide between men and women getting help in Orange County is deeper. And more than half of patients admitted for treatment are non-Hispanic white, followed by 37 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.
The report reflects the 28,164 admissions for treatment from January 2006 through December 2008. Detoxification services were not included in the report, although they are offered. The programs range in scope and size, from group counseling services to residential rehabilitation.
The report also doesn’t reflect information about people who were treated in private centers.
Patients treated through public programs may be lower income than those seeking help elsewhere, who can either pay for more expensive, private care or have health insurance to share the cost, O’Brien says. Patients who get help through the county are charged based on their ability to pay.
“We do get a pretty good mix,” he says. “The majority of our people are looking for work. You have each year an average of 38 percent over the whole year unemployed and looking for work.”
The vast majority of people who get publicly funded help are referred through the criminal justice system. In fact, almost half come through a program approved by voters in 2000 that allows people who are convicted on non-violent drug possession charges to receive drug treatment instead of jail time, although the cost of treating those offenders locally costs $5 million — much less than half the county’s budget.
But they also represent folks who realize they have a problem and call up the county for help — some 16 percent of the county’s clients.
For some of the data, such as the disparity between men and women in treatment, O’Brien could provide some context.
“I think women using is probably more underground,” O’Brien says. “There’s a lot of stigma associated with it, so fewer are probably going out to get treatment. Or, it also could be that more men are using than women are. Or they’re getting in trouble more and getting sent to services.”
For other findings, such as the geographic disparity here, there are fewer answers. It might be because there’s a higher concentration of public rehabilitation centers in north Orange County than in the south, so more people could be aware of them.