The programs involve outreach to opioid overdose victims, who will be able to begin taking buprenorphine — a medicine that diminishes cravings for heroin and other opioids — while still in the emergency room.
Similar initiatives have been set up at hospital emergency departments across the country, based on a 2015 study at Yale New Haven Hospital that showed users who start buprenorphine during emergency-room visits often have more success in recovery.
Jacqueline D. Bowens, the D.C. Hospital Association’s president and chief executive, said in a statement that the association and hospitals “have worked with a great sense of care and urgency to launch this most important program as a critical step in battling this terrible opioid epidemic.”
The District saw one of the most severe increases in opioid overdose deaths over the last several years, mostly caused by heroin laced with the extremely potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The city recorded 279 opioid overdose deaths in 2017, more than three times the 2014 figure. Deaths dropped to 213 in 2018, according to city officials, a number that still surpassed the city’s homicide total.
While America’s opioid epidemic is often seen as primarily afflicting rural and suburban whites, most overdose victims in the District are black — many of them older men who used heroin with relative safety for decades before the arrival of fentanyl.
In December, The Washington Post reported on the city’s faltering response to rising opioid deaths. Since then, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has announced a dramatic expansion in the distribution of naloxone, a lifesaving overdose antidote. Federal officials also launched an audit, still ongoing, of D.C. officials’ use of $4 million in grant money to treat opioid addiction.
Buprenorphine treatment of the kind now established in three of the city’s emergency rooms was supposed to have begun at United Medical Center — the District’s public hospital, and home to the city’s busiest emergency room for overdose victims — almost two years ago, The Post reported. But D.C. officials never followed through on that earlier version of the plan.
The Bowser administration released a blueprint in December for cutting overdose deaths in half. After District lawmakers complained that it was not detailed enough, the mayor last month released a revised plan with more specific goals and timelines.
The hospital association is coordinating the efforts with the Mosaic Group, a consulting firm, and the McClendon Center, a nonprofit provider of mental-health services.