MILLCREEK — While it took slightly longer than state and county leaders had hoped, Thursday marked the opening of a significant portion of treatment beds promised as part of Operation Rio Grande.
Starting next week, addiction patients will begin filling 112 new treatment beds in two new Odyssey House facilities in Millcreek, with 83 beds at a once-shuttered residential treatment facility at 3944 S. 400 East and 29 beds at a newly converted building at 880 E. 3375 South.
The beds — in addition to about new 25 beds Odyssey House opened in its downtown Salt Lake City facility in September — will more than double Odyssey House's total capacity from 116 beds to 253.
"Today is an incredible day," Adam Cohen, Odyssey House CEO, said at Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"What that really means is we'll be able to help thousands more sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and our friends reclaim their lives from the throes of addiction," Cohen said. "That's real people getting better one life at a time — and that's what counts."
About five months ago, Odyssey House and other local treatment facilities committed to expanding their beds after the August launch of Operation Rio Grande — the multiagency effort to eliminate crime in the Rio Grande neighborhood near the homeless shelter and divert the addicted to treatment.
State and county leaders had said at the beginning of the operation's launch that they hoped to have an additional 240 treatment beds by the end of 2017. In September, the county announced an additional 37 new treatment beds in three local treatment centers, including 26 for Odyssey House, 10 for First Step House and one for House of Hope.
Odyssey House bought the 83-bed residential facility from New Roads Behavioral Health in December for $1.6 million, Cohen said.
Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini lauded Odyssey House's efforts to help address addiction in Salt Lake County communities.
"I know there are very few families in Millcreek that haven't been affected by the opioid epidemic," Silvestrini said. "We can't limit this kind of a facility that helps people to one part of our county or another part. Everybody needs to play a role."
"This is the answer to less crime, this is the answer to improving people's lives, and we're happy to be a part of it," Silvestrini added.
While Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams had hoped to open all 240 treatment beds by the end of the year, he said the additional 112 beds for Odyssey House marks "the single largest contributor" toward that goal.
"It's so satisfying to actually stand here in a real facility," he said.
After Utah's Medicaid waivers were finally approved by the federal government last fall, McAdams said it cleared the way for treatment providers to start searching for facilities to expand — it's just taken some time to remodel the facilities to be move-in ready. He hopes the remaining beds will become available in the next few months.
"There's going to be need for more and more beds as we try to right the system and have the capacity to serve people who are in need," McAdams acknowledged, noting that there is a "big backlog" of people that got caught up in Operation Rio Grande waiting for treatment.
"It's going to take some time for us to work through that backlog, but the hope is that eventually, we will have the system that's the right size for the needs we have in our community," he said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, joked about how state leaders were on-edge waiting for the federal Medicaid waivers, especially after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned amid controversy over his travel expenditures — literally the day after Hughes and other state leaders met with him about the waivers.
"It's been a little tough, but we have worked so hard," Hughes said. "And we know we have a lot of hard work in front of us, but I couldn't put more faith and I wouldn't have more trust than we have in the people here at the Odyssey House."
New patients will start moving into Odyssey House's new Millcreek facilities Jan. 18, Cohen said. About 60 people are currently on standby for treatment, but Cohen said he expects to fill all of Odyssey House's new beds within the next month.
"There is still quite a need," Cohen acknowledged, but he added other organizations like First Step House are expected to expand as well, so "hopefully we will help meet that demand."
Rachel Santizo, an Odyssey House graduate, said she was personally touched by the opening of the new facilities "because it means we can save thousands of lives just like my life was saved."
Before she started treatment, Santizo said she was injecting herself with heroin seven to 10 times daily. She said she gave up custody of her kids and she was living on the streets.
"My self-worth was measured by dumpster diving and being pistol-whipped by my abusive boyfriend," she said.
Santizo said Odyssey House gave her a "safe place" and helped her understand that "I wasn't alone, I wasn't invisible, I wasn't useless, I wasn't worthless — or unique for that matter."
Today, Santizo said she's nearly six years sober and has regained custody of her children.
Odyssey House's treatment usually costs about $4,000 a month, Cohen said, but staff members work with low-income patients to access grant funding through Salt Lake County, sign up for Medicaid if they qualify and access other resources they may know not they are eligible for.
For more information about Odyssey House's treatment program, visit OdysseyHouse.org.