It’s been one year this month since the Yukon-Kuskokwim Ayagnirvik Healing Center opened in Bethel. Since then, about 45 people from Bethel, surrounding Yukon-Kuskokwim villages, and even from outside the region have started treatment for opioid addiction.
The 16 beds at the facility are a precious resource in a state with a bed shortage for residential addiction treatment. So far, the program has been able to offer a bed to everyone who’s needed one.
In 2016 YKHC estimated that about 250 people in Bethel "actively"use heroin, and about 500 people use it "recreationally." That’s based on a formula from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the villages, no estimate exists.
Andre Taylor, YKHC behavioral health clinician, says that more people are coming to get help because addiction has begun to lose its stigma.
“Now it’s a lot more accepted," Taylor said. "You have people who are opting to bring family members to come to sessions or to be involved. That’s not something we saw early on in the program.”
Nationwide, the conversation is no longer about addiction as a moral failing and instead centers on the physiological.
Patients going through the program spend six weeks at the center with a treatment plan that combines medical detoxification and behavioral health therapy. That’s followed by extensive outpatient care that can last for more than two years. All the while, the client takes addiction treatment medication and participates in individual and group behavioral health therapy. The services continue after completing the program.
“The best outcome for the client is the combination of the intensive treatment, behavioral health-wise, and then also the medication to help them stay clean," said YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges. "So providing one without the other isn’t an option.”
The medication that the program uses most frequently is suboxone. It can address opioid addiction, but the treatment doesn't only focus on that single issue.
“Most people who come into the program have a variety of addictions," said clinician Andre Taylor, "so suboxone helps with the withdraw from the opioids. However, the treatment that we give can be for a variety of different conditions as far as alcohol and drug addictions.”
While the clients are receiving treatment, they’re also learning life skills like finding housing and a job. The program can even apply for state grants to help with a couple months rent.
YKHC is also working to reduce the availability of opioids by talking with patients and physicians to limit how opioid painkillers are prescribed.
“So generally speaking, three to seven days after a major procedure," Dr. Hodges explained, "you should be able to control your pain with Tylenol and ibuprofen. And that should be an expectation, and patients should be educated about this prior to even getting the surgery.”
YKHC’s opioid addiction treatment program is only offered in Bethel. The village clinics offer some behavioral health services and are all stocked with Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.
Anyone in the region who knows someone using opioids or heroin can get Narcan mailed to them for free by calling the pharmacy at 907-543-6196. You can also stop by the pharmacy in Bethel or talk with your health care provider.
To learn more about YKHC’s opioid treatment program, call 907-543-6173 or 907-543-1967.