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Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, works May 16 in the MRI lab at the National Institutes of Health’s research hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Volkow is studying how anti-addiction medicines work inside the brains of people undergoing treatment for opioid abuse.

Nobody struggling with drug addiction in Rock County should have to think their best hope for recovery is 1,422 miles away.

But it happened to Nikolas Graves and Seth Stricklin. Both 23 years old, they traveled to West Palm Beach, Florida, and ended up overdosing within months of their arrivals. Graves died Dec. 22. Stricklin died July 14.

Rock County has treatment facilities, but the help isn’t always immediately available. Some addicts have to go on waiting lists, which they cannot afford to do, Brooke McKearn, Graves’ mother, explained. “When you’re addicted, you don’t have 12 weeks to wait. You don’t have six weeks. You need help immediately. This is life and death we’re talking about,” she told The Gazette.

McKearn encountered barrier after barrier trying to get her son the treatment he needed to kick his Xanax addiction, she said. Rockford, Illinois, has one of the closest inpatient treatment facilities, and Graves went there. But his health insurance covered only a 28-day stay, and he turned next to an outpatient facility in Beloit, but it didn’t accept his insurance, McKearn said.

McKearn didn’t give up.

She made calls to several local providers, but they all had waiting lists. She looked elsewhere, and Graves checked into an inpatient treatment center in Florida. He left after 103 days and then fell victim to an insurance fraud scheme, landing in a sober home without the proper oversight and support he needed to recover. A similar thing happened to Stricklin, who died at another sober home only blocks from where Graves stayed.

Rock County has resources to beat addictions, but it’s a patchwork of government and private agencies.

On the government side, a Rock County Human Services walk-in clinic helps people without health insurance or inadequate insurance. The clinic evaluates clients and then refers them to other agencies for treatment, according to Brenda Endthoff, program supervisor. Resources are limited, however, and many people seeking inpatient services don’t qualify. Top priority is given to intravenous drug users and pregnant clients, Endthoff said.

Endthoff said the area has a shortage of certain services, such as doctors who are willing to prescribe medications to help drug users quit. There’s also a need for more sober living facilities.

No single organization failed Graves and Stricklin. The system as a whole did.

Too many addicts aren’t getting the help they need at the different points in their recovery process. In Graves’ case, he successfully completed detox but then couldn’t find the support he needed after leaving the Rockford inpatient facility.

Rock and other Wisconsin counties need robust systems that support addicts throughout their recovery journey, regardless of how long it takes or the type of insurance they have. Leaving addicts in limbo, whether by putting them on waiting lists or outright denying them services, is like playing Russian roulette. It puts addicts and their families in a desperate situation. So desperate, in fact, some go all the way to West Palm Beach.

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