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Sen. Kaine hears of challenges, hope with addiction recovery

When Sen. Tim Kaine heads back to Washington next month, he's bringing some messages from a unique Peninsula program for moms and moms-to-be struggling to recover from addiction.

One is from Jamie Watford and her tiny 6-week-old, Evan. She was lucky enough to find a place in the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board's South-Eastern Family Project. But when she moved there from jail, a pregnant cellmate stayed behind, she told Kaine during the senator's visit to the family project Tuesday. Watford's cellmate had her baby behind bars, which means her baby won't get a chance to know his mother, and the mother won't get the medical treatment and follow-up support Watford is receiving.

"I just want to be a good mom," Watford said, when asked about her hopes for the future.

Another message is from Chelsea Johns, who says she's learned she needed more than the outpatient program she'd signed up for when she relapsed. Her probation officer, worried about the baby she's expecting in a few weeks, directed her to the family project.

Johns is worried about whether she'll be able to get the medication — suboxone or methadone — that she, like many others recovering from addiction, may need to take long into the future. She's lost her insurance and doesn't know what will happen once Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance for the poor and disabled, stops covering her.

A third message came from counselor Alethea Lambert, who tries to help family project residents with insights from her own recovery from addiction.

It's important to see that recovery is possible, and that it's something you have to keep working on, she said. That's a key part of what she shares when she sees graduates of the family project later on.

"Out in the community, we find ourselves in a lot of the same places doing the same things," she said.

And a fourth message came from Dr. Robert Lowe, medical director of the community service board's methadone clinic: "Recovery happens ... people get fixed," he told Kaine.

Kaine told workers and residents at the family project that those messages "helps me be a better advocate" for the range of health care, housing, employment and social services needs of people who have kicked an addiction and need to continue with the lifelong process of recovery.

"So much is about coordination of care," he said afterward. Project staff had told him about the medical care residents receive, and about the living skills instruction and counseling they receive during their time in residence — for up to 60 days after their babies are born — and once they are out in the community.

The fact that the family project is the only residential program of its kind in Virginia and that the need is so great that women have traveled here from as far away as Galax for care is one issue, Kaine said. More residential programs would help, he said.

So would be thinking about how to pay for the medication recovering addicts need.

"This is a physiological disease," he said. "Why should medication for it be different than medication for high blood pressure or statins for high cholesterol?"

Kaine has recently been assigned to the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and is eager to take back some of the lessons he's learned about Virginia's opioid addiction crisis over the past few years.

His wants to make the anti-overdose medication in naloxone spray more broadly accessible. This year's compromise legislation on opioid abuse includes his proposal to attack a problem of Medicare recipients' becoming addicted to pain medication by allowing the managed care plans that offer enhanced Medicare benefits to limit how and where patients get opioids.

Kaine would like to see more of an effort to encourage doctors to prescribe naloxone when prescribing opioids, and would like to make sure long-term medication for addiction is treated the same way as drugs for other chronic conditions.

He wants to try to make sure whatever replaces the Affordable Care Act that President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress want to appeal doesn't result in insurance coverage that costs women more than it costs men. And he said he's concerned that many substance abuse and behavioral health programs may not survive if Republicans enact their proposals to finance Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for poor and disabled Americans, with block grants to the states.

He's expecting a lot of battling when he gets back to Capitol Hill, he told the family project residents and staff.

"Health care is going to be an issue right out of the gate," he said.