Larsen meets with officials to discuss opioid use challenges

EVERETT — U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen spent Monday morning detailing some of the approaches he and other federal lawmakers are taking to stem the abuse of heroin and other opioid drugs in Snohomish County.

Local elected leaders, police, doctors and social workers, in turn, told the Democrat from Washington’s 2nd Congressional District about their efforts to confront the problem, and how some federal rules stand in their way. It’s an ongoing fight not only to rescue people from the throes of addiction, but to lessen the burden addicts are placing on jails, courtrooms and emergency rooms.

Larsen said it’s one of the top concerns he hears in his district, which stretches from Lynnwood to Bellingham. Snohomish County, where the rate of heroin deaths exceeds the statewide average, has been hit especially hard.

“A key theme that has emerged is that we should not see addiction as a moral failing, but as a medical condition that needs treatment,” the congressman said, reflecting a sentiment around the room.

The conversation took place in a conference room outside County Executive Dave Somers’ office. In addition to county officials, those at the table included Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson and Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring. They were joined by leaders from the Snohomish Health District and Providence Regional Medical Center Everett emergency room director Dr. Ryan Keay.

Larsen used the meeting to showcase the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law last month by President Barack Obama.

The bill expands access to potentially life-save drugs, such as naloxone, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It would put stricter controls on pain prescriptions. It aims to increase addiction-treatment services for women, children and veterans. It calls on the secretary of Health and Human Services to convene a task force to draft a list of best practices for pain management.

The bill mentions grant programs, but lacks the full $1.1 billion originally sought to support them.

It also doesn’t address a federal rule that limits Medicaid funding for addiction-treatment services to facilities with 16 or fewer treatment beds.

“Sixteen beds is too small to have efficiency,” said Linda Grant, CEO of Everett-based Evergreen Recovery Centers, which also runs facilities in Lynnwood and Seattle. With 30 or 40 beds, Grant said, a facility can provide a wider variety of programs to meet addicts’ needs.

It’s not enough to treat the addiction without following up with jobs and housing, she said.

Stephanson talked about Everett’s plans to provide 70 units of low-barrier housing within the next two years. By his own admission, that’s too little and not fast enough.

Criminal justice officials spoke of the the ineffectiveness of locking up drug offenders for short jail stays.

Superior Court Judge Joe Wilson, who has experience presiding over drug court, spoke of being inundated with low-level drug offenses.

“I process possession cases like I’m giving out M&M’S,” Wilson said.

Sheriff Ty Trenary has tried departing from that script by taking steps such as embedding two social workers with the deputies working in the Office of Neighborhoods. The social workers try to break the expensive and ineffective cycle of incarcerating addicts, by trying to steer them into treatment.

Everett Deputy Police Chief Mark St. Clair said he, too, values the less conventional approaches, but said the criminal justice system continues to play a vital role in the drug problem. It’s often in jail, he said, where addicts finally reach a low point and decide to get clean.

“To me, we keep all of these things on the table,” St. Clair said. “I wouldn’t take jail out of the equation either.”

Voters on Aug. 2 narrowly rejected a tax hike that backers said would have helped the county avoid budget cuts while paying for more cops, prosecutors and social workers. Supporters said the resources were needed to tackle the opioid addiction problem and associated crime.

Dr. Gary Goldbaum, director of the Health District, said the community needs to take long-term action to keep people from getting hooked on drugs in the first place.

“If we are to reduce the ever-growing number of people either seeking treatment or in the criminal justice system, we need to invest in evidence-based strategies to prevent people from becoming addicted,” he said. “Only then will we be able to turn the tide on the opioid crisis.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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