Overdose death drops when addiction treatment is offered after jail time

Overdose death drops when addiction treatment is offered after jail time
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Finally, some good news to share in the fight to curb our nation’s opioid overdose crisis. A promising initiative is being implemented in an unlikely place: the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

In 2015, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) issued an executive order to establish the Rhode Island Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force.

One of the four main recommendations of the group — similar to that of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, on which I served — was to expand access to life-saving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for addiction.

Both bodies recommended expanding MAT access to people leaving corrections because it reduces overdose deaths by more than 50 percent, whereas detox alone leads to relapse 90 percent of the time. In addition, people who are incarcerated are at far greater risk of fatal overdose following release.

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Rhode Island began to make MAT available to people who were incarcerated in mid-2016, and a recently released report provides an initial look at the impact of that program. Expanded access to MAT at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections was associated with a sharp drop in statewide overdose deaths among people who were recently released from incarceration.

 

What makes this drop so impressive is that it comes at a time when overdose deaths are skyrocketing nationwide, and the increased availability of fentanyl and related compounds has made overdose risk higher than ever.

The Rhode Island Department of Corrections is the first and only state system to screen all entrants for opioid use disorder and to offer all three available FDA-approved medications for addiction treatment to those eligible, prior to release.

Other states should act quickly to replicate this program. What was needed to make this happen in Rhode Island? First and foremost, a visionary governor who was willing to implement an evidence-based approach along with a supportive General Assembly that voted to fund such an initiative. 

This effort also required an enlightened Department of Corrections administration, as well as a supportive union and correctional officers. It took a passionate and capable medical team to implement the program, and community medical providers who were willing to accept patients recently released from incarceration.

Finally, Rhode Island ensured the availability of health insurance for each program participant by reactivating or initiating health insurance coverage for every person being released from incarceration.

Rhode Island has shown the rest of the nation that starting MAT prior to release from incarceration will lead to an increase in people getting the help they truly need and a significant decline in overdose deaths — even in the midst of a devastating national opioid crisis.

Instead of treating addiction like an acute condition that can be cured through detox, we must treat it like any other chronic illness.

Recovery is life-long. Those struggling with opioid use disorder deserve a fighting chance to rebuild a meaningful life post-incarceration.

Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) is a former congressman and the founder of The Kennedy Forum, a member of the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, co-founder of One Mind, and author of the New York Times bestseller “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.”