Lawmakers seek solutions to improve opioid addiction recovery

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SALT LAKE CITY — Mindy Vincent knows exactly how difficult it is to help opioid addicts recover without adequate resources.

(Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Lawmakers are looking at additional measures to curb opioid abuse and improve treatment. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

“We have to stop demanding people in their undesirable behaviors before we are willing to help them,” Vincent said, a member of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition. “If people won’t try for abstinence, then we don’t help them — instead we kick them out of treatment, and these people die.”

At at recent legislative hearing, Vincent encouraged more support for medication-assisted therapy.

“If people are ready to make some kind of movement, our hands are very tight with helping them because of the lack of access to medication-assisted therapy,” she said.

Members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee discussed opioid misuse treatment options on May 17. The goal is to keep offenders out of jail and the courts. Such discussion of the issue could lead to the introduction of bills during the 2019 session.

A report provided to the committee shows that the drug poisoning death rate in Utah has increased 110 percent within 15 years and is ranked fourth in the nation. On average, there are 82.2 to 95 opioid prescriptions per 100 adults in the state of Utah and 7,000 opioid prescriptions filled every day, and Utah is ranked the ninth highest nationally for all drug overdoses.

Brent Kelsey, spokesman for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said lawmakers’ responsibility is to help improve clients’ health and ensure former drug users have a safe and drug-free environment to live in during their recovery.

“Our goal is to not just achieve abstinence or to reduce recidivism (the rate at which abusers become addicted or return to the judicial system again),” Kelsey said. “It’s to help people find a meaningful life in their community.”

Kelsey said there is a lack of government funding for recovery support services. The current budget is around $7 million and helps 27 percent of drug abusers be eligible for Medicaid. With an increase in funding, 84 percent would qualify for Medicaid, he said.

Opioid misuse is now more prevalent than alcohol abuse because of the lack of access for treatment, according to Kelsey.

The committee focused on two main questions for a panel of three presenters: Vincent, Kelsey and Kristina Swickard of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association.

Rep. Raymond P. Ward, R-Bountiful, asked presenters for clarification on what prevention looks like.

Kelsey offered a five-step process created by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration called the “Strategic Prevention Framework.” Through coaching, the administration invites communities to use this process to develop effective prevention strategies. It works with health departments to look at data to help develop risk and protective factor profiles for individual communities.

“Prevention has to be driven locally,” Kelsey said.

Rep. Kelly B. Miles, R-Ogden, discussed what constitutes “effective treatment.” Vincent said that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” treatment, and with each practice using different treatments, the administration can find which center would be best for each patient based on his or her needs.

Miles said he worries more funding to the treatment programs would not make a change. He said that unless there is better communication between lawmakers and treatment services, it is impossible to see the results from the funding and providing treatment just for the sake of providing treatment won’t work if abusers are not getting better.

“This is not going to be a simple solution because this is not a simple problem,” Rep. Edward H. Redd, R-Logan, said. “There won’t be dramatic improvement unless we put a lot of effort into it.”

Vincent defended increased treatment funding and said accurate data on successful treatments cannot be provided because it is measured through abstinence. She said clients have limited access to specific treatment programs because of the lack of funding.

“I think it’s very important that we leave all avenues open and allow people to move along the stages of change how they need to, to get to where they want to go,” Vincent said. “Not where I want them to go, not where the Legislature wants them to go, where they want to go.”

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