By Paul Kiefer
The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.
At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.
But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.
King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.
The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.
“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH
Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.
For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.
“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.
Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”
For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.
But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”
One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”
But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”