Researchers suggest improvements for addiction medication program in Massachusetts’ jails

Researchers say a Massachusetts program that provides opioid addiction treatment medications in county jails needs some changes.

The researchers, from Tufts University School of Medicine, UMass Chan Medical School-Baystate and UMass Amherst, found that there are gaps in care as people transition from incarceration to the community.

A group of Massachusetts jails are among only a handful of correctional facilities across the country where someone in custody could get medication for an opioid use disorder. The program, which started in 2019, offers three medications in some jails: buprenorphine, methadone and naltrexone. It also includes coordinating with treatment programs to continue the medications after someone is released.

The study found that sometimes people have difficulty accessing care promptly upon release and steps could be taken to improve access and reduce the risk of overdose.

The researchers interviewed 36 workers from 18 treatment programs that work with patients referred from jails. They made recommendations for three main areas of improvement: providing “bridge doses” so someone has the medication immediately upon release, ensuring communication with community treatment providers, and providing cell phone access for those who were incarcerated.

“The fact that these medications are available in jails in Massachusetts is phenomenal,” said Tom Stopka, Tufts Medical School associate professor, epidemiologist and first author of the study. “But if people don’t continue on the treatment post release, they’re at exceedingly high risk for overdose.”

The research is part of a five-year project known as the Massachusetts Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN), which is reviewing the program and testing how to implement it in all Massachusetts jails, and eventually state prisons.

“This program has the possibility of greatly decreasing opioid overdose deaths in one of the highest risk populations in the state,” Stopka said. State data show that someone released from incarceration is 120 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than someone in the general population.

“I do hope that all other jails in Massachusetts will soon adopt this program and that other states will look at the programs that have been implemented here, look at the research that we’ve conducted, see how effective the programs have been and the great impact they can have on the public health,” Stopka said.

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