Luzerne County’s prison system has started a Suboxone program for inmates experiencing opioid withdrawal, officials said Monday.

This is a significant development because some inmate suicides have been largely blamed on the painful effects of opioid detoxification behind bars without the aid of a prescribed medication such as Suboxone (buprenorphine), which is used to reduce symptoms.

When the subject came up after three female inmate suicide deaths over a seven-month period in 2017 and early 2018, prison officials said the only medication-assisted treatment for opioid withdrawal was for inmates who are pregnant to protect the safety of unborn children.

County Drug and Alcohol Administrator Ryan Hogan said Monday the prison’s inmate medical services provider, WellPath, had agreed to initiate the Suboxone program about a month ago at no additional charge. Approximately 40 to 50 inmates have met requirements to receive the medication, Hogan said.

“I know the program has expanded relatively quickly,” Hogan said. County Acting Manager Brian Swetz said the program has been “working out well.” While WellPath absorbed the program activation costs, the company would charge the county extra to continue the program going forward if its contract is extended another year, officials said.

WellPath’s current three-year contract expires on May 14, and the proposed extension is up for discussion at tonight’s council work session.

WellPath’s proposed contract states it will cost approximately $452,000 to provide the medication-assisted treatment program for a year, noting adjustments may be warranted if the program requirements or number of participants change. The submission does not state how many participants are factored into this tally.

Swetz said the administration will suggest the county pay for the Suboxone program portion of WellPath’s contract extension using compensation from litigation against opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors. The county has $4 million in opioid litigation settlement receipts from 2022 and 2023 and is expected to receive more. Swetz said Correctional Services Division Head James Wilbur will be presenting more details to council tonight. Wilbur could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

WellPath’s $452,000 charge would cover the equivalent of 2.45 full-time staffers — registered nurses and a nurse practitioner — to oversee and administer the program and expenses for laboratory tests, the Suboxone, drug screenings and other necessary office and administrative costs, its submission said. WellPath also has assisted the county in creating drug and alcohol detoxification units in the prison, it said. County Councilman Tim McGinley said he recently stopped at the prison to see the program after mention of its creation at a county council meeting.

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