Local program expands harm-reduction treatment for opioid sufferers

Real Change –

Emily Katz, the supervisor of an opioid treatment program at DESC, remembers how clients commonly get Suboxone, a treatment for opioid use disorder.

A client would schedule more than five hours for the process. A nurse administers Suboxone — strips of medicine that dissolve under the tongue — and regularly take the patient’s vitals. When the time was up, they are sent off, even though the process wasn’t enough for a person to be inducted in the treatment.

“Hope you don’t use more tonight,” she remembered thinking as a patient would go back out into the world.

A newly expanded DESC program aims to get past that model and instead empower patients to administer medication-assisted treatment (MAT) options themselves with on-call support from a health care professional and delivery of medications wherever they may be — an apartment, a street corner or an encampment. They can also walk into the office, if they choose.

“Big picture: What we’re looking to do is make it easier to get suboxone than it is to get heroin,” said April Gerard, DESC’s Opioid Treatment Network nursing supervisor.

The program takes its lessons from longstanding research that suggests helping people when and where they need it is a critical first step to addressing addiction. This low-barrier model means that the carrot is not paired with a stick; clients are brought into the program and get Suboxone without requirements of sobriety.

“We’re not looking for ways to kick them off of the program,” Katz said.

The OTN team is stationed in a DESC satellite office at 216 James St. in Seattle, around the corner from their well-known homeless shelter on Third Avenue, and consists of two nurses, a care coordinator, a substance use disorder counselor, part-time advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP) and a data collection specialist, all funded through a two-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a U.S. federal agency.

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