King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announce a task force to address the heroin epidemic and to try to expand treatment options.

Share story

Calling the regional heroin epidemic one of the major causes and consequences of homelessness, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a task force Tuesday charged with finding ways to expand treatment, with a goal of providing it on demand.

At a news conference on Beacon Hill, Murray said city outreach workers and police officers have told him that hundreds of the people living on the streets and in unauthorized tent encampments are struggling with addiction.

“We can make a significant impact on homelessness if we make an impact on addiction,” Murray said.

Constantine ticked off the county’s troubling statistics. More people now enter detox for heroin than for alcohol. In 2014, overdose deaths from heroin in King County reached 156, the most in 20 years. Among the homeless, overdoses are the leading cause of death.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Constantine said 150 people are on a waiting list for publicly funded methadone treatment in the county. Too many addicts are being treated in hospital emergency rooms and county jails, which he described as the most expensive and least effective treatment.

Officials at the news conference did not detail how much it might cost to provide such widespread help, but said they would lobby the state and federal governments to increase funding to address the crisis.

Constantine said he’d also like to see more front-line responders, including police and EMTs educated about addiction and treatment resources so they have information to give drug users they encounter on the street.

“This wave is hitting every community across King County, sparing no race, no age, no neighborhood, no income level,” Constantine said.

The 32-member task force includes health and treatment providers, law enforcement, social-service agencies, cities and the University of Washington. It is expected to report back in September.

Sheriff John Urquhart said the nation’s “War on Drugs” was a failure and law enforcement “must do something different.” He said he is willing to consider new approaches, even safe-injection sites, which Vancouver, B.C., has offered for several years.

King County in 2014 helped site a methadone-treatment facility in Bellevue to serve opioid addicts in East King County. Another one will open in summer in Renton.

But efforts to put a third in Des Moines have met with resistance, despite data showing the people who would use it come from the surrounding communities, said Adrienne Quinn, county director of human services.

The news conference was held outside a treatment center, one of two that closed last year in bankruptcy, a result, officials said, of the state’s low Medicaid reimbursement rates for treatment. Those rates are going up in April, said Jim Vollendroff, director of the county’s Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division.

The Beacon Hill treatment center is expected to reopen this spring as a 60-bed inpatient facility, primarily for drug treatment, run by Valley Cities.

Several members of the task force, which will meet for the first time this month, said they are open to new approaches. Caleb Banta-Green, a senior researcher with the UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, said people being treated for opioid addiction with buprenorphine or methadone, which blocks symptoms of withdrawal and craving, are 50 percent less likely to die.

But methadone-treatment centers are limited to 350 total patients by state law. Doctors may prescribe “bupe” in their offices, but they need a special license and the number of patients any one doctor can treat is capped at 100, Banta-Green said.

“We have to radically rethink how and where we provide care. We need to dramatically increase the availability of care. We can’t expect a homeless person addicted to heroin to navigate our complicated medical and treatment system,” Banta-Green said.

The county is also supporting legislation in Olympia to integrate involuntary commitment laws with substance-abuse services so that people with advanced addictions who resist medical intervention may be detained and hospitalized, said Vollendroff.

Thea Oliphant-Wells, a social worker at a needle-exchange run by Public Health — Seattle & King County, said she was homeless and addicted to heroin in 2005 when she was admitted to a 30-day impatient-treatment program at Swedish Medical Center. From there, she said, she was able to move into supported housing for recovering addicts.

A high-school dropout with a GED, Oliphant-Wells went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the UW.

Addicts, she said, “need a variety of treatment options. They need safe and affordable housing. They need treatment available when they’re willing to accept it and in a way that works for them. Many people are left out of recovery who don’t have money, phones, health insurance, reliable transportation or the organization to follow-through,” she said.

To anyone who doubts that treatment can work, she points to her own history.

“Opiate addicts can and do recover,” she said.