Advocates push for better care for addictions

By Kevin Beese Staff reporter

Angalia Bianca (Photo taken from Facebook)

A 36-year heroin addiction led to Angalia Bianca being arrested more than 120 times, placed in prison seven times and separated from her family.

“My rap sheet is more than 100 pages long. I ended up homeless between prison stints,” Bianca said. “My family disowned me. I didn’t even know what my own children looked like.”

She overdosed on methadone, heroin and pain pills more than 100 times.

While using, Bianca was often homeless living in doorways and alleys.

“I tried to get so high I’d pass out knowing that when the sun went down and light was gone roaches would be crawling on my body,” Bianca remembered.

She said she would go to methadone clinics and drink the methadone just so she wouldn’t go through heroin withdrawals and be able to steal to get her next fix.

In May, Bianca will mark eight years sober.

She credits A Safe Haven, a foundation providing housing and other services to men, women, women with children, youth and veterans with a focus on helping them achieve self-sufficiency, with rescuing her.

“A Safe Haven was able to give me the tools and teach me ways to get sober and stay sober,” Bianca said.

She stayed at a Safe Haven facility for eight months getting her life back together. Now she has a studio apartment overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and works for the University of Illinois.

“Without Safe Haven, I’d be dead, in prison or on the street trying to look good enough to go into Macy’s and steal (to get money for heroin),” Bianca said. “Today, I’m a tax-paying, law-abiding — I don’t even litter — citizen.”

Bianca was part of a panel last week that told members of the state House’s Mental Health Committee about the importance of funding treatment programs like A Safe Haven.

“We cannot arrest ourselves out of the (heroin and opioid) problem and we can’t give more drugs to solve the problem,” Bianca said. “We have to treat the root causes.”

Leon Harden, 51, completed the culinary arts program at A Safe Haven and got a job. He fought back tears when testifying before state lawmakers about his experiences.

“I believe in programs like A Safe Haven. It should have all of our support, overwhelming support,” Harden said. “There are people out there who need our help and support. I would like Safe Haven to have the resources and funding they need to help more people.”

State Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park), chair of the House Mental Health Committee, said that there has been coverage parity regulations for mental health and addictions since former U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy was alive “and today we are finding more and more people who are dying because they are not able to access the care they need.”

She said that state lawmakers need to make sure that individuals with mental health issues get the treatment they need.

“If you have a mental health or addiction issue and you need treatment, you are not in a situation where you are able to fight for parity,” Conroy said. “This needs to be done so patients are getting the access they need.”

Alex Mathiesen, McHenry County outreach coordinator for Live4Lali, an agency that works to reduce the stigma of substance abuse disorders and prevent disorders among individuals, families and communities, asked lawmakers why insurance companies are allowed to provide marginal treatment options for substance abusers.

“Could you imagine the public outrage if a major insurance carrier only provided 30 days of treatment to a cancer patient and then said, ‘Well, now you’re on your own’?” Mathiesen, a former heroin addict, asked about insurance companies only providing month-long treatment for drug users. “Insurance companies don’t stop providing insulin to diabetics after 30 days. They don’t stop providing services to those with Parkinson’s or heart disease.”

Luke Tomsha worked three jobs, grew marijuana and sold his prescription drugs to support a $5,000-per-month heroin habit. In March, the LaSalle resident started the nonprofit Perfectly Flawed Foundation to help other individuals with addictions.

He said he is continually reminded of his 14-year battle with heroin “when I try to pay down the collection notices I receive every month.”

“This sadness cannot continue,” Tomsha said. “We cannot continue to hide the fact that access to care is needed.”





— Advocates push for better care for addictions   —