STAT: UMass Medical School supporting prisons and jails in battle against opioid addiction

August 08, 2017

Medication assisted treatment has proven to be powerful weapon in communities across the country in efforts to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic. Now, UMass Medical School’s Warren J. Ferguson, MD, is studying how jails and prisons can implement that model, according to a report by STAT.

The article highlights the Rhode Island Department of Corrections’ $2 million-a-year effort to offer medication assisted treatment to opioid-addicted inmates.

A correctional health expert, Dr. Ferguson has been working closely with Rhode Island correctional officials as part of a correctional health practice collaborative studying medication-assisted treatment programs in order to develop best practices. Partners also include correctional facilities in Connecticut, and in Middlesex and Barnstable counties in Massachusetts.

“What are some of the facilitators and barriers to establishing those programs?” said Ferguson, professor and vice chair of Family Medicine and Community Health at UMass Medical School, director of academic programs for its Health and Criminal Justice Program, and founder and co-chair of the Academic and Health Policy Conference on Correctional Health. “What are some of the adaptations that need to be made for that to be successful?”

One challenge has been concern on part of prison officials that drugs used to combat opioid addiction – buprenorphine and methadone – could be diverted and sold illegally, Ferguson tells STAT. 

By contrast, Vivitrol, which blocks someone from getting high if they take an opioid, has been more popular among law enforcement officials than opioid-based treatments like buprenorphine and methadone, something Ferguson says is understandable.

“If the primary mission of a correctional facility is safety and security, and health care is secondary to that, if you look at it through that lens, you can understand why correctional facilities are enthusiastic about antagonists” like Vivitrol, Ferguson tells STAT.

However, research has shown that in the community outside of jails and prisons, medication assisted treatment featuring buprenorphine and methadone has improved treatment outcomes and results, Ferguson says.

Under the Rhode Island program, inmates are screened for opioid addiction when they arrive and offered treatment that includes counseling. Buprenorphine and methadone are given for up to a year. Both can be restarted before release, along with Vivitrol, which is also offered then, STAT reports.

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