Opioid addiction is a nationwide health crisis, and Governor Bill Walker has declared opioids as a pubic health disaster in Alaska. In a state with a widespread population, treatment can be difficult to find. The Sunshine Community Health Center offers the only treatment program in the area. KTNA’s Phillip Manning spoke with the providers who put on the program.
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Epidemiology, Anchorage and the Mat-Su saw the second highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the state last year. Statewide, the overdose rate has more than quadrupled in just over ten years.
One difficulty in combating the rise of opioid addiction nationwide is access to treatment. The Sunshine Community Health Center hosts the only opioid addiction treatment program in the area that offers Suboxone.
Cici Schoenberger, behavioral health provider at the clinic, describes how Suboxone can aid in fighting addiction.
“It cuts the cravings for the opiates, and the naloxone part of it interferes with the ability to feel the effects of the opioids. So, you basically don’t get high. If you are taking Suboxone, you might as well take your money and throw it in the toilet.”
Cici Schoenberger says there’s an important distinction when discussing opioid addiction versus a physical dependence.
“The physical dependence is, you take the medication—actually not even for all that long—and your body becomes dependent on it. You will experience withdrawal when you stop the medication, but you’re not craving the drug. Addiction is when you’re craving the drug, your lifestyle changes, things like that.”
One factor identified in the national opioid epidemic is a dramatic increase in the prescription of opioid painkillers. Schoenberger asked one of her treatment groups how many had gotten into opioids through prescription medication. Every person said they had.
“However, not all of them had gotten addicted to the pain medication. They took pain medication as prescribed, maybe early on in their life, and said, ‘Whoa! This is really good.’ So, people who have the potential to become addicted to it experience opioids in a way that many people do not.”
In addition to a rising number of people addicted to opioids, Cici Schoenberger says the impact on the lives of those addicts also seems to have intensified in recent years.
“Many of the people that came to us early in our program were still functioning marginally. Many of the folk that are coming now are very much not functioning. They have lost jobs; many of them are—if not homeless— they’re literally couch surfing. They’re always on the edge of losing their home.
The outpatient opioid treatment program at Sunshine expanded earlier this year. While that means more people can get treatment, Schoenberger says the cost of the Suboxone medication can still present a hurdle in some instances.
“Many patients that come to us do have Medicaid or other health insurance, so they can get the treatment and the medication paid for, but the medication is not inexpensive. We try to make it so that it’s not a barrier, but we can’t do anything about the cost of the medication. We can about the treatment.”
Currently, there is limited availability in the treatment program, and a new group may form in the future. Those interested in more information, or who wish to be put on the waiting list, can call Behavioral Health Assistant Jayme Spires at 733-9207.