Oxycodone is the generic name for a range of opoid pain killing tablets. Prescription bottle for Oxycodone tablets and pills on wooden table for opioid epidemic illustration

SF Mayor Investing $6 Million In First-In-The-Nation Program To Help Opioid Users

May 18, 2018 - 9:28 am
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SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS Radio) - People struggling on the streets of San Francisco with opioid addiction will soon be able to get advanced treatment through a first-in-the-nation $6 million initiative announced Thursday by San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell.

In an attempt to tackle the opioid epidemic happening not only in San Francisco but across the county, the investment will give a boost the city's Department of Public Health's Street Medicine Team by adding 10 new clinicians.

The team takes to the streets daily and provides the opioid treatment medicine buprenorphine directly to people suffering from heroin addiction.

Buprenorphine, a daily pill or strip that dissolves in the mouth, helps reduce cravings for opioids and can lessen withdrawal symptoms, reducing the risk of overdose.

"This program is a big step forward to saving lives lost to heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine addiction and overdoses. Homeless people who use drugs are especially vulnerable and our health system is adapting by going directly to them with compassionate outreach and expertise," DPH Director Barbara Garcia said.

The health department implemented a one-year buprenorphine treatment pilot program in 2016, where the street team engaged opioid users and offered assessment, education and same-day prescriptions for buprenorphine. The team provided the services at a variety of locations, including Navigation Centers, syringe access sites, in parks and on the streets.

"When you think about it, we're doing a couple things, one lives with this program and second, the reduction of emergency costs for individuals who are in our ambulances, emergency rooms and hospitals," Farrell said. "This is a program that we've piloted in the city of San Francisco and now we're putting the pedal to the metal, if you will, and we're going to have a dedicated citywide team of 10 professionals."

The new program will allow for some 250 patients to receive the medication. Providing access to buprenorphine will cost the city about $3 million a year, but according to Farrell. One third of the cost will be reimbursed by Medicaid.

Additionally, the funding will allow for buprenorphine to be provided at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital emergency rooms and for the implementation of an addiction consulting service within the hospital, so that doctors can have expertise on dealing with opioid addictions.

The Street Medicine Teams' medical director Dr. Barry Zevin, who's been working with the city's homeless population since 1991, said, "Many people have the preconception or stereotype that a person experiencing homelessness doesn't care about their health."

"What we see day after day, one person after another is that people are deeply concerned about their health. They may have more compelling concerns, like where are they going to get something to eat, where are they going to lay their head down and, if they're dependent on drugs, where are they going to be able to get drugs to prevent themselves from having severe and awful withdrawals," he said.

"If we're out there as a team, we're able to meet people where they are. We see and talk to people about the harm related to their substance abuse," Zevin said.

In addition to urging people on the streets to go into treatment for opioid addiction, Zevin said, his team is also recommending and assisting people, when needed, to go to methadone treatment centers.

"I tried many times to shake my addiction of heroin for over 28 years and nothing worked. I tried everything," said Christopher Ruffino, a former heroin user who now works as a substance abuse counselor and credits Zevin with helping him change his life three years ago when they met near the Civic Center area.

"Dr. Zevin met me out in the rain, with my bicycle in my hand and the clothes on my back, and spoke to me for 25 maybe 30 minutes. He said, 'Look, I'm going to do this for you and do not let me down.' And I don't believe I have," Ruffino said.

"I owe my life to buprenorphine, without that it was over. I was losing hope and didn't think I was ever going to get it and I got it," he said.

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