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New program diverts some people to Talbert House after an overdose instead of the emergency room

fire truck
Bill Rinehart
A Cincinnati fire truck roars to a Downtown emergency call.

A new Alternative Transport Program gives Cincinnati firefighters the chance to take those who've overdosed to the Talbert House Engagement Center instead of an emergency room. The program gives those experiencing addiction the chance to get help targeting their addiction and saves the fire department money.

EMS District Chief Carstell Winston says the fire department has historically only been paid for transporting overdosing patients to an emergency room. That changed on Jan. 1.

"Under this new model, Medicare sees the advantage of taking people to where they really can get the help they need. But at the same time it saves them money because so many overdose patients, they are released or they stay in the hospital and incur a lot of bills when they didn't need to be there in the first place," Winston said.

The fire department is often the first to arrive at the scene of an overdose and firefighters carry thelifesaving medication Narcan, which rapidly stops overdoses. Those revived by the drug do not necessarily want or need to go to the emergency room.

By taking consenting patients to the Talbert House Engagement Center instead, the fire department takes them to a place specializing in addiction treatment and resources. Winston says 27 patients have opted for the latter since the beginning of the year.

He recounted a story where a patient wanted to decline treatment at the Talbert House until an employee got "raw" with the patient and asked, "Are you just going to go out and OD again?" That patient chose to complete 10 days of addiction treatment, taking the first step toward sobriety.

Winston heard about the encounter because the patient wanted to thank the fire department for its help.

"This was the first time [the patient] had heard of the partnership between the fire department and Talbert House Engagement Center in terms of this new initiative that we have. So we thought that was really good," Winston said.

The program is also beneficial to morale in the department, which responds to at least 10 overdose calls a day and experienced staffing issues at the end of 2021 because of COVID-19.

"We can have a problem with a little compassion fatigue with our members because they make so many runs and so many overdose runs. So, that compassion sometimes isn't there. We've been really trying to encourage not to give up on these overdoses. If they want help, let's transport them to the Engagement Center and give them the help they need," Winston said.

Last year, roughly 454 people died of an overdose in Hamilton County, a decrease from the previous four years.

The department is also working with officials to expand the program to help other people with targeted needs, especially those experiencing mental health emergencies.

"We're looking at trying to reach some of those non-traditional type places where we could transport. But, still, if it's low acuity, if it's not a major emergency, it will help the ERs and the EDs to stop being so overcrowded," he said. "But at the same time, it will take the person to where they really need to go to."

He says the expanded program could launch in the next year or so.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.