The legislation offers a multiprong plan to combat the opioid crisis. “There’s not an easy solution that’s going to make this go away,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, Washington state’s chief health and science officer.
After Shannie Jenkins’ son, Kyle Brinton, 31, died from a heroin overdose in October she wanted people to know about the reality and stigma of the opioid crisis.
Jenkins appeared with Gov. Jay Inslee at a round table in January where he and other government officials discussed legislation to combat opioid abuse.
“Nobody hates addiction more than the addict himself, seeing the shame,” Jenkins said in an interview last week.
Two companion bills, Senate Bill 6150 and House Bill 2489, requested by Inslee, aim to fight addiction by treating it as a medical condition rather than a choice. The bills would create four new networks to connect communities and providers to a “hub” that provides medication-assisted drug treatment.
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The bills include an array of other initiatives, such as making the overdose-reversal drug naloxone widely available to anyone regardless whether they have a prescription, and expanding the state’s opioid prescription monitoring program beyond emergency rooms.
“It’s very complex and it requires a multiprong solution,” Dr. Kathy Lofy, Washington state’s chief health and science officer, said of the opioid crisis. “There’s not an easy solution that’s going to make this go away.”
The bills would require the Department of Social and Health Services to promote medication-assisted treatment such as methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine at all state-certified opioid treatment centers. The medications are designed to help people to avoid illicit drugs and prevent relapses.
The bills also would implement a first-in-the-nation initiative to provide medication-assisted treatment to offenders in jail.
The program would cost $8.9 million a year to implement with an additional $1.7 million coming from marijuana taxes, according to the governor’s proposed supplemental budget.
Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Health Care and Wellness Committee and sponsored the House bill, said evidence shows that medication-assisted treatment is an effective approach to what is called opioid-use disorder.
HB 2489 had bipartisan support and was voted out of the Appropriations Committee unanimously on Friday.
“I think the opioid crisis helped the society at large to understand that addiction is not a failing of a personality,” Cody said. “We should treat it as any other chronic disease, not just as some human making bad choices.”
Inslee in 2016 signed an executive order that prioritized focus on the opioid crisis as a mental-health and public-health crisis.
The bills would remove language from state law that suggests people with opioid-use disorder should use other alternative treatments like abstinence from drugs before seeking medication-assisted treatment.
“This is a medical disorder, a medical condition, these aren’t junkies,” said Jason McGill, health policy adviser for the governor’s office.
Opioids are now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the state, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. In 2016, some 694 opioid-related deaths occurred in Washington.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said opioid abuse is behind more than 80 percent of property crimes in the county.
“Think about it; if you’re a homeless heroin addict you have to go commit a crime to get your chip of heroin so you don’t get sick,” Satterberg said. “But if you can get a several day supply [of medication] it eliminates your need to be a compulsive drug seeker and your need to commit a crime.”
He also added that an abstinence approach to drug addiction can increase mortality by 50 percent because a relapse after being drug-free can lead to an overdose.
Not all legislators support prioritizing medication-assisted treatment.
Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, an opponent of safe drug-consumption sites proposed in Seattle and King County, said he doesn’t oppose temporary use of medication-assisted treatment, but believes the goal should always be abstinence.
“Who’s going to go through painful detox if they can just choose between their drug of choice?” he said.
Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, said the opioid bill doesn’t adequately address the behavioral-health issue of opioids.
“These people that are moving through this process have serious self-medicating issues and they will take anything to self-medicate that they can find,” he said during the public hearing on Jan. 19.
Regardless, DeBolt voted for the bill in the Health Care and Wellness Committee last Friday.
Jenkins, who said she used to think drug addiction was a choice, said she wishes she would have known that it was better for her son to stay on his medication than go completely drug- free.
Brinton struggled with opioid disorder for 10 years. For the last two years, Jenkins said, he was leading a normal life while taking Vivitrol, a drug that aims to prevent relapses in people who have gone through detox. His father was paying for the medication, and Brinton decided to stop it and was being monitored by his parents.
He was doing fine, but then relapsed and overdosed on heroin, Jenkins said.
“If you have to be on it, it’s better than death,” she said. “You’re not going to be cured of this disease. It’s always with you.”
After her son’s death, Jenkins started a support group for mothers of addicts on Facebook. The group has grown from five to 40 members.
“Let’s start talking,” she said. “The more we start talking about it the more the shame goes away.”