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Methadone and other medical assisted treatment programs could be coming to Utah prisons

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Methadone and other medical assisted treatment programs could be coming to Utah prisons

Feb 13, 2024 | 5:23 pm ET
By Kyle Dunphey
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Methadone and other medical assisted treatment programs could be coming to Utah prisons
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Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, is pictured on the first day of the legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

Despite several county jails expanding medical assisted treatment programs in recent years for people struggling with opioid addiction, if someone is transferred to one of Utah’s two state prisons, that treatment stops. 

What follows are dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can take a severe physical and mental toll. 

“When it’s working for someone, we should not take them off of it. That sudden discontinuation is dangerous,” said Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, during a Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday. 

Plumb is sponsoring SB212, which would allow anyone receiving medical assisted treatment, whether in their community or in jail, to have access to a program if they’re sent to prison. The bill passed out of the committee with unanimous support, and is headed to the Senate floor for consideration. 

By Plumb’s estimate, about 240 people currently incarcerated in Utah’s prisons would be eligible.  

Medical assisted treatment, or MAT, usually combines drugs like buprenorphine or methadone with counseling to help people addicted to opioids. 

In the past several years, some of Utah’s county jails have developed their own MAT programs. In 2020, the Salt Lake County Jail unveiled its new MAT program and last legislative session Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, passed a bill allowing jails to either work with private practitioners or create MAT programs of their own. 

But when someone receiving treatment is transferred from the jail to the prison, that treatment stops. Doctors usually suggest tapering off MAT drugs like methadone rather than quitting “cold turkey,” which can result in damaging withdrawal symptoms and severely impact mental health. For people who are incarcerated, that is sometimes the only option.   

Plumb said she heard of that happening as recently as November. 

“Someone has a little slip-up like a parole violation, and they have to go back out to the prison for a period of time — being taken off of their medical assisted treatment to be back in that incarcerated space was pretty gut wrenching,” she told the committee Tuesday morning.

Plumb’s bill was described as a starting point — people who were already taking medication would not have their treatment discontinued. Her long-term goal is for anyone struggling with opioid dependency to receive the same type of treatment in prison that they would get outside. 

Similar to Watkins’ bill, SB212 would allow for private practitioners to go into a prison and provide doses to their incarcerated client. It also establishes a path for the Department of Health and Human Services, which is over health care for the prison, to create its own program. 

The program would be paid for “as funds allow,” said Plumb, telling the committee “I don’t want this to be an accidental mandate that is unfunded.”

But whether it’s money coming to the state through opioid manufacturer settlements, federal programs or grants, Plumb said she’s not worried about finding funding.  

“I do think there are going to be funding sources available, but I did not want to make this be an additional burden on DHHS,” she said.  

Plumb’s bill would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to compile a report detailing the MAT programs for inmates.