Published August 9, 2017

In Erie County, N.Y., tragedy transforms a father’s response to addiction

Six years after his son Michael’s suicide, Avi Israel is on a crusade to help other parents avoid a similar sad ending.

Michael was addicted to opioids, prescribed by multiple specialists to help ease the symptoms of severe Crohn’s disease. Attempts at detoxing or finding treatment hadn’t worked. And his father says his son lost hope that he could ever find recovery. Back then, Israel says, he didn’t know enough about addiction to help his son. Today, he’s the driving force behind House of Hope, an organization he helped start in early 2017 to educate the community about addiction and help them through a loved one’s recovery.

Something Had To Be Done

After Michael’s death, says Israel, “We knew that something had to be done. As parents, we really didn’t know anything about addiction. We wanted to raise awareness.”

That motivated Israel to work with BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York – Michael’s insurer - on an awareness campaign called “Painkillers Kill.” Launched in 2014, the campaign alerted the community to the danger of prescription opioids on billboards, television, radio, print and online. It canvassed pharmacies, schools and doctors’ offices with educational materials.

But he wanted to do more. And so he founded House of Hope to help further his belief that families are an integral part of a loved one’s recovery.

House of Hope, launched with funds from Israel’s own 401(k), now holds packed-house workshops for parents about understanding addiction. It connects families with personal recovery coaches - guides for the unfamiliar terrain of addiction and recovery.  The Buffalo, N.Y.-based resource also holds educational forums throughout Western New York and offers a support group for family members grieving a loved one lost to overdose.

It’s a unique model; some recovery programs focus only on the person with substance use disorder, leaving family members out of the picture.

It Takes A Team

Patricia Hunter, behavioral health manager for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, says House of Hope has been a welcome addition to her case managers’ “toolkit” of resources for members with substance use disorder.

“Western New York has been hit particularly hard with the opioid crisis,” says Hunter. In fact, Erie County has one of the state’s highest overdose death rates, according to a 2016 report from the Office of the New York Comptroller.  She and her team of case managers now spend a majority of their time working with members with substance use disorder, beginning from the moment that member has been discharged from an inpatient treatment facility or referred by a provider.

Today, Hunter says, insurers like BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York are much more involved in the treatment of opioid use disorder. “There is more of a focus on their transition from inpatient to other levels of care,” says Hunter. She and her case managers reach out to members during those transitions to ensure they remain in treatment and to offer resources.

One of those resources is House of Hope – a place where people in recovery and their families can find support. BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and the organization, says Hunter, see themselves as partners, confronting a problem no single provider, patient or family can face alone. That’s something of a new paradigm for all parties involved, all of whom have watched the opioid crisis tear through their shared communities.

“It Wasn’t His Fault”

Avi Israel wishes people had been talking more about opioids and addiction six years ago, before he lost his son to suicide. “We as parents,” he says, “did not know how to support him to help him get out of it.” Israel says that before he understood addiction is a brain disease, he blamed his son, telling him to “just quit.” Now, he knows that was the wrong approach. And he wants to help other families come to the same conclusion.

At House of Hope workshops, families learn more about the disease of addiction, what recovery involves, and how to be a part of that recovery. Israel believes families should forget the term “tough love,” saying it’s better to support a loved one than throw them out of the house for using or relapsing.  He also believes families have to have some rules. “For instance,” says Israel, he could have said to his son Michael, “OK, Michael, I love you. I understand that you have a disease. I’m not going to throw you out of my house, but there’s no [drug] use in my house.” Israel says families should make a plan with their loved one in case of relapse and encourage their loved one to take charge of their recovery.

Israel says he also encourages families to work with their health insurance companies, to allow them to connect loved ones with resources like inpatient or outpatient treatment. Employees of Israel’s insurer, BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, live and work in the community; they know the region’s resources well.  “That person I’m talking to on the phone might know me,” Israel says. That kind of local focus could be comforting to other families searching for help close to home.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association is an association of 36 independent, locally operated Blue Cross and/or Blue Shield companies.