Smallest State Boasts Largest Opioid Plan
The opioid addiction epidemic continues to wreak havoc in unexpected ways, beyond the death toll of 72,000 in 2017. In West Virginia, for example, public health authorities blame addiction for more than 1,000 new cases of acute hepatitis-A viral infections since March; the disease had been diminished by 95 percent nationally since the creation of a vaccine in 1996. Last week, Sen. Bob Casey announced that the Senate had approved funding for an advisory council to help thousands of grandparents who are left to raise grandchildren abandoned or orphaned by addicted parents. Meanwhile, local and state governments continue to spend billions of dollars on prevention, enforcement, treatment and emergency medical responses to opioid overdoses. Now a sliver of optimism has emerged from Rhode Island, which has begun to use jails as the first step in addicted inmates’ lifetime recovery rather than strictly for punishment. Under a 2016 law, as reported by Politico, Rhode Island offers inmates who are addicted to opioids access to all three of the approved medications to treat opioid addiction — methadone, Suboxone and Vivitrol. Most state prison systems offer no medical treatment for addiction, for fear that inmates will divert the drugs for inappropriate use. Most important is that the program continues after the prisoners’ release, most often through the state’s Medicaid program. The objective is to keep recently released inmates from relapsing during a period when they are most at risk. Incarcerated inmates lose their physical tolerance over time, but not their brain addiction. The program works. In the first half of 2016, 26 recently released prisoners died of overdoses. For the same period this year nine recently released prisoners died of overdoses, a 61 percent reduction. The program also is likely to reduce costly recidivism, while enabling former addicts to be productive. Rhode Island is the smallest state, with a population of about 1 million. Its program costs about $2 million a year, and is relatively easy to administer because the state has a single state/local prison and no county jails. But Pennsylvania and other states should emulate the program to start addicted inmates on the path to long-term recovery, especially through the continuation of treatment after their release.