The NC Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS] has joined forces with the NC Department of Public Safety to form a new “medication-assisted treatment program” meant to reduce the number of overdose deaths among former inmates attempting to reenter society after serving time.

On Friday, April 26, the state announced the program – one that backers say is badly needed since the opioid crisis is especially a problem for those who just got out of prison.  According to information provided by the state, formerly incarcerated people are 40 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than other North Carolinians. (They were also found to be 74 times more likely to die from a heroin overdose.)  The study – one conducted by the state’s universities – also found that the risk of overdose is greatest in the first two weeks after an inmate’s release.

NC DHHS Deputy Secretary for Behavioral Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Kody Kinsley said on Friday that this new program is based on proven scientific methods.

“Opioid use disorder is a chronic disease for which the standard-of-care is medication-assisted treatment,” Kinsley said. “This treatment works, and we believe our joint efforts will save lives and help our returning citizens get a start on a new path in their lives.”

Pilot program participants will receive opioid use disorder educational materials as well as counseling.  They’ll also receive an injection of naltrexone – the extended-release medication that blocks the effect of opioids for about a month and reduces the possibility of an opioid overdose during that time.  As participants transition, they’ll also receive naloxone kits that reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.  In addition, participants will be referred for follow up care with UNC Family Medicine’s “Formerly Incarcerated Transition” program.  That program will provide peer and other recovery support as well as keep participants connected with health services so that they can continue treatment.

The new opioid initiative, which will cost about a half million dollars, will be targeted at three prisons to start: the NC Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, the Wake County Correctional Center in Raleigh and the Orange County Correctional Center in Hillsborough. It will be funded by a State Opioid Response grant recently awarded to NC DHHS by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said her department is doing what it can to help the former inmates.

“We want to support our citizens who are transitioning back to their communities and the workforce to have the best chance for recovery,” Cohen said on Friday, adding that she was very pleased with the work the Department of Public safety had put into the program.

This new program comes during “Reentry Week,” which runs from April 22 to April 26.  That’s a week that the NC Legislature has marked to raise awareness of the efforts to help inmates reassimilate into society and also to show appreciation for those individuals and groups who aid in that effort.

Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks also had something to say on Friday regarding the new program.

“Formerly incarcerated individuals face numerous challenges that include finding work, housing, healthcare, and transportation, which can lead to recidivism, health, safety and social concerns,” Hooks said.  “Federal, state, and local leaders recognize these challenges and are working to remove barriers that prevent formerly incarcerated people from pursuing healthy and productive lives when they return to communities after serving time.”

Fighting the opioid crisis is one of the primary goals of the NC DHHS. This new pilot program aligns closely with many of the approaches detailed in the state’s broader strategic plan – the NC Opioid Action Plan – which involves moves such as the “coordination of infrastructure, reduction of oversupply of prescription opioids and increasing community awareness, to address the burden of the opioid crisis in North Carolina.”