Seattle and King County face a heroin and opioid addiction crisis. The numbers are staggering–229 individuals died in 2015 from heroin and prescription overdoses in King County alone.
Despite the very real need, our region still suffers from a lack of services and treatment beds to address substance abuse. There are only sixteen detoxification beds in King County and treatment options are shockingly limited.
To be successful, we must approach heroin and opioid addiction holistically, compassionately, and through this public health lens. As King County Prosecuting Attorney Satterberg wrote in a letter to the Board of Health dated January 19, 2017, “I want you to know that in this drug crisis, unlike the response to crack cocaine in the 80’s and 90’s, that I believe that the criminal justice system should not take a primary role, and that instead we should follow the lead of public health professionals.”
Making treatment available is the best way to fight this crisis. As we know, putting users in jail is both expensive, demoralizing and has been unsuccessful in reducing the numbers of persons addicted. And, after a person is released from jail with a felony record, the problems really begin. There are few housing or job opportunities open and desperation sets in.
Too often we have heard stories of people who have a substance abuse disorder and have finally reached out for treatment, only to be put on a six-month waiting list. Six months is a lifetime when you are waiting for help.
As a member of the Seattle/King County Board of Public Health, my goal is to implement proven best practices in Seattle to reverse this opioid crisis. This past October the Heroin and Opioid Addiction Taskforce released their recommendations to prevent opioid use disorder, to prevent overdoses, and to improve access to treatment and other supportive services for individuals experiencing opioid use disorder.
Today, I am proud the members of the Board of Health voted unanimously to pass a resolution in support of those recommendations.
As the report recommends, our region must increase the medically assisted treatment options available to individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders. Alternatives such as methadone, buprenorphine, Suboxone have shown to be extremely helpful for many. See what San Francisco is successfully doing to promote both Public safety and public health. We can do this too.
This past November I championed the Task Force’s recommendation by including money in our budget for a social worker to help implement a Buprenorphine First clinic at the Downtown public health location.
The clinic began serving clients this past Tuesday, and on the first day offered help to three new clients directly referred by the neighboring service facility. Multiply that work every day this next year and we will have made a serious dent in the street-use problem.
This is the progress we need in our neighborhoods: wrap-around, low-barrier services treating people where they are and available immediately. This saves people and saves money too.
The Opioid Addiction Taskforce report also recommends the region pilot two Community Health Engagement Locations (CHELs), one in Seattle and one elsewhere in King County. I have heard concerns regarding CHELs and I hope community members will take the time to understand the breadth of their importance.
CHELs will be more than supervised consumption sites for adults with substance use disorders, They will also provide an indoor location where opioid and heroin users can access medically assisted treatment like buprenorphine, wrap-around social services and case management, basic medical treatment, peer support, health education, needle exchanges, overdose prevention and rapid linkages to detox services. The goal is to get people up and on to healthy lives.
We cannot address the addiction crisis by blaming the users. This is an epidemic that is driven by more than poverty. As public testimony showed today, it affects so many of us, and brave people spoke passionately about the impact heroin and pharmaceutical opioids have had on their relatives, their children, their parents, friends and neighbors.
Thanks to the Task Force we have a new road map and a direction to drive.