Emory, Hazelden Betty Ford in talks about plan to fight opioid crisis

Discussions emerged following meetings of dozens of Atlanta leaders

Emory University and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, one of the best known nonprofit addiction treatment providers in the nation, are quietly taking steps toward teaming up against the opioid epidemic in metro Atlanta, according to several people familiar with the plans.

Services under consideration include prevention programs, medication-assisted treatment, addiction recovery, education and research. Discussions about the possible collaboration are in the early stages so the organizations are still working out details about each of their roles, costs, funding sources and where to locate any services.

Officials from the private research university said they could not comment because of a memorandum of understanding with Hazelden that includes a nondisclosure agreement. Minnesota-based Hazelden – it bills itself as the country’s largest nonprofit treatment provider, with 17 locations in nine states — also declined to comment.

The proposed partnership grew out of months of meetings involving dozens of community leaders concerned about the opioid crisis. Among them are Atlantans Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN; Frank Boykin, former CFO of Mohawk Industries; and John Rice, chairman of Emory’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center Board, which could be asked to vote on what Emory and Hazelden propose. All three men confirmed details about the Emory-Hazelden discussions in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"You have two world-class organizations and the idea is to put them together and see if you can make one plus one equal three or four or five," said Rice, who also serves as a trustee on the Emory University Board and is chairman of GE Gas Power. "The very smart people from Emory, who know what is going on in this whole area, are interested in this, so I am supportive of the concept."

The Trump administration has declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency. Nationwide, drug overdoses killed about 72,000 Americans in 2017, a record number driven by increasing opioid-related deaths. Such overdoses killed 1,007 people across Georgia that same year, up 12 percent from the previous year, state Department of Public Health figures show. The epidemic has gotten so bad that Americans are now more likely to die from opioid overdoses than car wrecks.

» In-depth: What the painkillers took: The fentanyl epidemic robs a Georgia family of a daughter and a mother.

» More: Heroin’s trail of death

Rice’s 32-year-old stepson, Christopher Wolf, died of a heroin overdose three years ago after battling an addiction to OxyContin, a painkiller Wolf was prescribed for a painful inflammatory bowel disease. Wolf’s mother, Cammie Rice, has created an Atlanta nonprofit organization, Christopher Wolf Crusade, dedicated to preventing opioid addictions.

"I don't see a lot of effort being focused nationally on how we prevent this from happening, and there are so many kids that start with that first prescription," she said. "If you are having a surgery and you have to have an opioid, you need to know there are risks after four to five days of being on those pills."

Boykin’s 32-year-old son, Stephen Boykin, attended the Betty Ford Center Drug Rehab program in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where he received buprenorphine for his heroin addiction. Such medication-assisted treatment blunts withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Impressed by his son’s recovery, Boykin said he financially supported a program in which Hazelden educated doctors at Grady Memorial Hospital about medication-assisted treatment.

“It is going to get worse, in my view, before it gets better,” he said of the epidemic. “And because of the stigma associated with it, I think it is something that desperately needs to be addressed in our state and in our city. The time is right to do that.”

» More: Former high school quarterback overdosed— and lived to tell his story

A friend introduced Boykin to Johnson, the former CEO of CNN who has battled depression and is concerned about the links between mental illness and addiction. Boykin and Johnson then assembled dozens of community leaders with the goal of establishing a nonprofit “center of excellence” in Atlanta that would focus on prevention, treatment and recovery.

“Our goal is for this to be the finest center of its type in the nation,” said Johnson, who has referred people to Hazelden for treatment and been pleased with the results. “We aren’t going to be able to do this overnight. It is going to have to be done in stages.”

Allie Armbruster, a Georgia State University law school student from Atlanta, has shared with Johnson and Boykin's group her story about recovering from drug abuse, which for her involved Xanax, cocaine and heroin. A Pace Academy graduate, she told the group how she benefited from Alcoholics Anonymous, yoga and Vivitrol, a medication that blocks the effects of opioids. And she pointed out that many addicts lack health insurance and become impoverished and homeless.

"My biggest concern and hope for this partnership is that they will not forget the people who cannot afford expensive places to go," she said. "A lot of inpatient treatment facilities are very expensive."

Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, confirmed she has attended the meetings with Johnson and Boykin. Last year, her agency signed a $73,000 contract with Hazelden for educating doctors in Georgia about fighting the opioid epidemic. A separate state government organization, Georgia’s Healthcare Facility Regulation, licenses and regulates 519 drug abuse and narcotics treatment programs across the state, most of which are concentrated in the Atlanta region.

This is not Hazelden’s first collaboration with a university. In 2011, the nonprofit entered into a partnership with the psychiatry department at Columbia University in New York. The plan was to offer treatment for people with addictions and mental health problems in a renovated building in Tribeca.

Called the Tribeca Twelve, the project's occupancy certificate was delayed by a few weeks, so Hazelden transferred some of its residents to a hotel across the street. In an article published by The Fix, an online publication that covers addiction and recovery, some of those residents complained of lax supervision and relapses and said one resident overdosed on heroin in a hotel bathroom.

The university decided not to renew its contract with Hazelden, said Dr. Frederic Kass, a clinical psychiatry professor at the university.

“As that project launched, I think it became clear that we did not have enough input and authority in terms of the actual roll-out of the plan,” Kass said. “There were no hard feelings. There were no disputes. There were no problems.”

Hazelden spokesman Nick Motu said in an email that the issues at Tribeca Twelve were temporary and did not affect the nonprofit’s relationship with Columbia.

“Since opening Tribeca in New York nine years ago, we have expanded outpatient facilities in places like San Diego, Los Angeles, the Twin Cities, near Portland Oregon and soon, Bellevue, Washington,” he said. “We consistently provide quality services (last year we treated 25,000 adults and adolescents nationally) to those that need substance use disorder treatment.”