By Ronnie Cohen
An innovative program offering all of Rhode Island’s prisoners methadone and other drugs to treat opioid-use disorders has slashed overdose deaths in the state during its first year, according to a new study.
Overdose deaths dropped 12 percent throughout Rhode Island during the first year of the program – the only one of its kind in the U.S. Even more dramatically, the number of overdose deaths in Rhode Island plunged 61 percent last year among people recently released from jail or prison, researchers report in JAMA Psychiatry.
“Within one year of setting up this program, we have impacted state overdose deaths,” senior author Dr. Josiah Rich said in a phone interview. “That’s unheard of.”
Since July 2016, Rhode Island screens all its inmates for opioid-use disorder and makes available methadone and two other medications for addiction treatment, or MAT, to those who need and want it. The new study reports on results during a period in which more than 300 prisoners had taken advantage of the program.
“This program reaches an extremely vulnerable population at an extremely vulnerable time with the best treatment available for opioid-use disorder,” said Rich, a Brown University professor who directs the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights in Providence.
He sees the treatment in jails and prisons, combined with community treatment after release, as a winning strategy for reducing skyrocketing overdose deaths, which totaled more than 63,000 in the U.S. in 2016.
Dr. Kathleen Maurer, medical director at the Connecticut Department of Correction in Wethersfield, praised the program in neighboring Rhode Island as a prototype for the nation.