As the opioid epidemic kills tens of thousands each year, new federal guidelines will allow states to use Medicaid to pay for drug treatments for prisoners, reports USA Today. Only about 10% of people with an opioid use disorder get treatment, according to researchers at New York University. The treatment rate is even lower among the incarcerated, who are at a higher likelihood for a fatal overdose upon release from prison. Since Medicaid was established in 1965, federal law has prohibited money from the program being spent on inmates, meaning low-income people who were on Medicaid outside of prison have their coverage cut while incarcerated. The new federal guidelines welcome change and could help combat the opioid crisis, drug treatment advocates say. The surging opioid epidemic and high rates of substance use disorders among incarcerated people are deeply intertwined. Joseph Friedman, a substance use researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles said, "Incarceration is one of the key risk factors driving the overdose crisis."
There were 107,622 drug overdose deaths in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and two-thirds of those deaths were caused by fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid. If treated with medication for their opioid use disorder while in prison, former inmates are around 75% less likely to fatally overdose upon release, the American Civil Liberties Union says. Researchers who study drug use disorders among the incarcerated population say treatment in prison will help reduce recidivism. Last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse issued findings showing Massachusetts inmates with opioid use disorder treated with buprenorphine were 30% less likely to be re-arrested in the first year after release compared to inmates with the disorder who did not receive treatment in a neighboring county.