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New program to treat opioid withdrawal could prevent deaths at Spokane County Jail, officials say

Spokane County Jail inmates who suffer from opioid addiction will soon receive a drug called buprenorphine, which binds to receptors in the brain to treat the dangerous and debilitating symptoms of withdrawal. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A program launching Monday at the Spokane County Jail aims to prevent inmates from dying of opioid withdrawal.

The county, along with the private contractor that provides medical care to jail inmates, NaphCare Inc., announced Thursday they will begin offering a drug called buprenorphine to inmates who suffer from opioid addiction and present “sufficiently severe withdrawal symptoms” while in custody.

Like methadone, which is administered to some inmates through the local health district, buprenorphine binds to opioid receptors in the brain to treat the dangerous and debilitating illness that occurs when addicted people are cut off from drugs such as heroin.

“Opioid withdrawal can result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalances that can become life-threatening,” Dr. Emily Freely, NaphCare’s chief medical officer, said in a news release. “We believe that the best approach is to prevent the withdrawal symptoms altogether by administering a buprenorphine taper, rather than allowing symptoms to manifest and managing them afterward.”

The new program will begin as officials continue to investigate a spate of inmate deaths that has left some families searching for answers. Eight people have died in Spokane County’s custody since June 2017.

Three of the deaths were suicides, and one man, 36-year-old Patrick Flynn, was reportedly sick from heroin withdrawal when he hanged himself with a bedsheet in May. Additionally, the medical examiner’s office confirmed last week that 52-year-old David Good died by choking on his vomit in his cell in March. The cause was a lethal combination of opioids and methamphetamine.

“While it is difficult to quantify the impact this program will have, we believe that reducing patient suffering during opioid withdrawal is a necessary step we need to take to decrease the risk of patients attempting suicide in our Spokane County Jail,” County Commissioner Josh Kerns said in the news release.

NaphCare, which began contracting with Spokane County in May 2016, provides medical care at correctional facilities across the country, including the Pierce County Jail in Tacoma and the Benton County Jail in Prosser. According to the news release, the company has already launched the buprenorphine program at more than a dozen other facilities.

County spokesman Jared Webley said higher-ups from NaphCare’s headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, were in Spokane on Thursday to help set up the program. Lindsay Hayes is in town, too. He’s the suicide-prevention expert the county hired after Flynn and the other two inmates hanged themselves.