BILLINGS — The Montana Department of Health and Human Services says 90,000 of the state's residents have a substance abuse disorder. Yellowstone County's immersion Friday into the Angel Initiative, the state's latest addiction treatment program, aims to combat that number.
“Addressing the substance use crisis in Montana requires creative solutions and thinking outside of the box. That’s what we’re doing with the Angel Initiative,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said at the program launch Friday inside the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. “By partnering with sheriffs and treatment providers across the state, we aim to reduce the stigma associated with treatment and guide more individuals on the path to recovery.”
A collaborative effort among Gianforte, DPHHS, participating local law enforcement agencies, and treatment providers, the Angel Initiative allows an individual struggling with addiction and substance abuse to go into any participating law enforcement office and receive assistance to get connected with treatment. Individuals with narcotics on them will be asked to surrender them, but will not be prosecuted except under certain circumstances like outstanding warrants. But even that is flexible.
"We’re going to work with people," said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder. "We have lots of people in our community that have small violations like a traffic warrant. We don’t want that to stand in the way of people getting treatment."
To date, 20 Montana sheriffs have committed to join the effort. After receiving training from the state, sheriffs in Cascade County, Lewis and Clark County, and now Yellowstone County are considered in active status.
“We appreciate the partnership with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office and we look forward to moving this initiative forward,” Meier said. “We’re pleased with the early success of the program in terms of how – through state and local teamwork - it’s connected people to treatment that we know is the key to helping people who are struggling with addiction.”
A toll-free number, the Angel Line, connects law enforcement to a treatment provider within the closest proximity to assess the level of care a participant may need. If the participant meets criteria for residential treatment, the Angel Initiative will assist in evaluating transportation needs with the goal of getting the participant to treatment as soon as possible.
Linder said the impact of substance use touches all of Montana, and Yellowstone County is no different.
“The impacts are far-reaching, but providing an additional pathway to treatment is crucial,” he said. “We’re optimistic about the potential the Angel Initiative brings to the table.”
DPHHS has worked with the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana to enroll substance use treatment providers. Kosovich, who joined the governor, director, and sheriff at today’s event, is one of 10 participating providers that collectively serve 33 counties.
“We are proud to be a partner with the Angel Initiative and do our part to help Montanans,” Kosovich said. “This program has brought a new focus to such an important issue in our state, and I think that’s exciting.”
Meier said similar programs have been successful in other states, citing the Kentucky State Police starting a similar initiative in 2016 with all 16 Kentucky State Police Posts participating. So far, the Kentucky program has helped place 198 individuals seeking treatment.
Information about Montana's new program is available at angelinitiative.mt.gov [dphhs.mt.gov].
DPHHS cites several key statistics describing the impact of substance use in Montana:
- DPHHS estimates that approximately 90,000 Montanans have a substance use disorder, but realistically only a fraction of these people seek treatment in any given year.
- EMS agencies are being called to more opioid-related events than ever before. From January through September 2021, the state averaged 69 opioid overdose calls per month. And, from late spring through summer 2021, Montana saw some of the highest opioid overdose monthly call volumes in the last three years, with a peak of 86 calls in July.
- In 2019, the annual methamphetamine-related death rate in Montana was 7.2 per 100,000 people, exceeding the national average of 5.7 per 100,000 people.