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St. Louis County to offer inmates addiction treatment medication

St. Louis County jail
File photo
The St. Louis County Jail is located in the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton.

St. Louis County will use federal grant money to offer medication-assisted treatment to some county jail inmates with opioid addictions.

The county will use $2 million, two-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to phase in treatment for inmates in Clayton’s Buzz Westfall Justice Center.

Health professionals consider medication-assisted treatment administered along with counseling the best standard of care for people with addiction. But the county has long lacked the money for medication-assisted treatment and only offered inmates behavior therapy, said Spring Schmidt, director of health promotion and public health research for the St. Louis County Health Department.

“For this population in particular, it’s incredibly cost-prohibitive to cover the actual cost of the medications as well as having the staff capacity to manage the treatment while in the corrections facility,” Schmidt said. “This funding will provide us with the opportunity to begin that process.”

In medication-assisted treatment, providers prescribe medications such as buprenorphine, naltrexone and methadone to ease withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings and help patients stay in recovery. Health providers will most likely use buprenorphine for most patients, but will take into account which treatment an inmate is currently using before deciding how to treat them, Schmidt said.

The county will give first priority to inmates who are already on a medication therapy for addiction at the time they enter the jail. Previously, an inmate taking a drug such as suboxone would need to go off the treatment while serving time.

Later, the county will focus on inmates receiving counseling who have a set release date.

“We are starting with populations we are more confident we can get connected to the system,” Schmidt said, explaining why the county wants to begin the program by treating those already connected to a provider.

The health department’s physicians have recently received the necessary waivers to dispense certain addiction medications, Schmidt said. The federal grant money will also allow the county to hire three health workers, including a discharge manager that will help inmates transition from incarceration to life and treatment after jail.

The time immediately following discharge is an incredibly vulnerable period for people in recovery, Schmidt said. After a person is released, it can be easy for them to fall back in with old friends and old habits.

“We focused on having that discharge planner as part of this discharge funding. We’ll create comprehensive discharge plans for each of those.”

Criminal offenders have rates of addiction and drug abuse more than four times the population as a whole, according to the National Institutes of Health. St. Louis County officials estimate nearly one in five inmates in the Westfall Justice Center are addicted to opioids.

The county expects to begin the first phase of the treatment in October.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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