An oasis for families, friends hit by opioids

After losing their 23-year-old son and brother, Ben, to the opioid epidemic in 2016, the Miller family founded Speak Up for Ben Inc., a nonprofit that is planning to open The Oasis Community Center in Hanover Township, Northampton County. Rather than offer a drug and alcohol treatment center, their goal is to create a recovery center for families, a place to go for those with loved ones affected by substance abuse.

Rhonda Miller is the executive director of The Oasis Community Center, a resource for those whose loved ones and friends are affected by opioid abuse. (Photo/Christopher Holland) –

The Oasis center, which opens July 1 at 3400 Bath Pike, is near the border with Bethlehem close to Route 22, but in a setting characterized by calm.

“We are in an 1803 stone farmhouse; it’s such a serene setting right along the Monocacy Creek,” said Rhonda Miller, Ben’s mother and executive director of Speak Up for Ben. “It’s an oasis in the physical sense from the chaos of the storm of life.”

The center provides support, activities and resources for families of substance abusers, focusing on those who have lost loved ones or those whose loved ones are still struggling with addiction. The center is not just for families but also for friends, co-workers and others. All of the services at the center are free.

Noting that families often lack outside support, Miller said the center would provide family support meetings, grief recovery groups and healing activities. The house, which is about 3,200 square feet, will include space for cooking classes, a meditation room, restorative yoga, art therapy and other activities.

“Of course, with the opioid issue surging, this is really a time for it to open,” Miller said. “The need has always been there. It’s no longer something that people can overlook.”

Though still claiming thousands of lives per year, drug overdose deaths fell slightly in Pennsylvania, falling from 5,559 deaths in 2017 to 4,267 in 2018, according to data from the state’s OpenDataPa online portal.

In April, the Easton chapter of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce attracted nearly 80 executives to a program on the opioid epidemic, emphasizing the concern over its impact on families and the workforce.

“We think Oasis is going to allow families who are grieving over the loss of loved ones to recover and can help them help us and the rest of the community battle the scourge of the opioid addiction,” said Lamont McClure, Northampton County executive.

Miller believes the roots of the opioid crisis are complex but feels over prescription plays a role. Those who are prone to addiction already can quickly become addicted to opioids, according to Miller.

“Ben was 23 and he struggled with an opioid addiction through prescribed opioids,” Miller said of her son.

Once prescribed opioids were cut off, Ben turned to street opioids and eventually heroin, she said. It’s a path that many people take once they become addicted, Miller said.

For healing to take place, people need to come together, she added.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of families like me,” Miller said. “This touches many families. A lot of overdose deaths are unreported. I really want to break the stigma around addiction. We are creating a safe community where they can access resources and gain support.”

The Northampton County Drug and Alcohol Division covered startup costs for the center and as a nonprofit, Speak Up for Ben conducts fundraising efforts and is looking for donors. The county provided Speak Up for Ben with $105,000 in funding for the fiscal 2018-19 year, said Sue Wandalowski, director of human services for Northampton County.

Miller declined to provide an estimated operating budget.

Linda Johnson, president of Voices for Change, an Easton-based nonprofit, believes the Oasis can bring people together who have loved ones suffering from substance abuse.

“I think what it does is bring the recovering resources and the family resources together because that’s how we heal,” she said.

Voices for Change focuses on helping people coming out of treatment programs and getting them into recovery houses, Johnson said.

By showing the community that recovery is possible, the center also could help change the stigma surrounding opioid and substance abuse, she said.

The center will be open weekdays for regular programs and on occasional weekends for special events. The center will also have a certified family recovery specialist on site, a person trained in supporting family members seeking recovery from a loved one’s addiction.

The center will host a grand opening at noon on June 28.


Opioid addiction programs by health care providers see results

Dr. Sarah Kawasaki, director of addiction services at Penn State Health’s Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in Harrisburg, explains the steps that the system is taking to treat opioid addiction in the region during a press conference on Wednesday. (Photo: Ioannis Pashakis) –

Over-prescribing opioids have been targeted as a driving force behind the nation’s opioid addiction crisis. For the past year, two Pennsylvania health systems have taken efforts to slow the problem.

In their first year as a shared health care network, Highmark Health and Penn State Health, enacted a suite of programs in 2018 to fight the state’s ongoing opioid crisis.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health’s strategies helped overall opioid prescriptions drop by 15 percent for its insured members.

Those strategies include:

  • Working with providers to offer services like physical and occupational therapy to individuals who could manage their pain without opioids
  • Monitoring members’ prescribing patterns to identify unsafe use of the drugs
  • Linking those members with the correct treatment

Meanwhile, Penn State Health grew its Pennsylvania Coordinated Medication-Assisted Treatment program with a $750,000 grant from Highmark. The program helps the system provide medication like Suboxone and Methadone to treat patients with opioid addiction while also providing care to address both physical and mental health issues.

“Our approach (to treating opioid addiction) is focused on primary prevention, safe prescribing and management of pain, high quality and accessible addiction treatment and community support. You need all of those to make this work,” said Dan Onorato, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Highmark Health, at a news conference Wednesday.

Penn State Health CEO Dr. Craig Hillemeier said that the multi-faceted approach to reducing opioid abuse has worked in the past year because Highmark’s contributions have made the efforts more sustainable.

Other efforts between the two entities included nearly $500,000 donated toward community organizations and programs focused toward fighting opioid addiction in Pennsylvania and a program using Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s pain specialists that guided more than 600 patients on the use of opioids in 2018.

“As individuals, we all know someone whose life has been upended by opioid addiction,” Hillemeier said. “As health care providers, we see the impact of this crisis every day in our emergency rooms, our psychiatric hospital, our outpatient practices and sadly, even our morgues.”

Penn State Health and Highmark Health’s actions are a part of a nationwide attempt to battle an epidemic that began in the health care space.

It’s an epidemic that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said during a press conference Tuesday was caused partly by pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma which he said deceived health care providers into pushing the use of opioids.

In a lawsuit filed in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the office alleges that Purdue, the manufacturer of OxyContin, had approved its sales representatives to deceive doctors with information that claimed the drug wasn’t harmful to patients.

The suit alleges that representatives told doctors that if their patients were showing signs of addiction, it was a symptom that the patient was having continued pain and should be treated with more OxyContin.

“Purdue marketed to doctors a symptom they fabricated called pseudo addiction,” Shapiro said. “We allege that Purdue misrepresented their products as non-addictive and omitted scientific contrary evidence.”

Caesar DeLeo, vice president and executive medical director of strategic initiatives at Highmark, agreed that physicians were tricked into overprescribing medication and said that Highmark and Penn State Health’s programs are looking to fix the harm that was done.

“Physicians believed opioids were safe and effective and not addictive based on poor science funded by some of the companies,” DeLeo said. “We tried to eliminate pain by overprescribing and that was the wrong thing to do and now we have to reel this in.”