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King County to roll out new treatment program for heroin addiction

A task force to address King County’s heroin epidemic will release recommendations this week that could include a safe consumption site for people who use drugs.

The group will make another recommendation: creating a buprenorphine program at the site of Seattle’s Needle Exchange program.

Most people might know about methadone to treat heroin addiction. Buprenorphine is another medication that can help people reduce and eventually quit their dependency.

Later this fall, people who come to the needle exchange may have more than fresh syringes and services offered to them, they could also get buprenorphine.

Dr. Joe Breuner is a physician with Seattle King County Public Health Clinic. The idea he said is to make treatment as easy as possible when people want it. 

“The thinking is, a day when the client doesn’t use heroin and uses buprenorphine instead is a good day,” Breuner said. "And it’s improving their health that day. And that’s enough to prescribe buprenorphine.”

A doctor can prescribe buprenorphine, so it doesn’t require going to a special clinic like methadone treatment does.

So why aren’t there more providers doing this? Addiction carries a lot of stigma.

“And treating addiction also carries stigma,” Breuner explained. “There’s reluctance on the part of lots of prescribing physicians who could get the waiver to get drug addiction into their clinics. So most counties in Washington state don’t have buprenorphine prescribers available.”

To date San Francisco and Boston have similar buprenorphine programs. Seattle’s program will start small, around 50 patients initially, with plans for more down the road.

The goal is that other providers, including community health centers and behavioral health clinics, would step in as clients are further along in their treatment.

Year started with KUOW: 1994