AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – Researchers from UMass Amherst and other institutions have discovered that improving the release process of incarcerated individuals and maintaining treatment continuity may prevent opioid overdoses, but what are the challenges underlying this research and how do they plan to address them?

Since 2019, institution researchers have been trying to understand research questions around the Massachusetts Legislature’s new opioid use disorder treatment program.

22News spoke to professor of public health at UMass Amherst and co-principal investigator of the study, Elizabeth Evans about what challenges were addressed that may have made it hard for previous incarcerated people to continue their treatment.

Evans says that those that were receiving treatments in jail have a difficult time receiving those treatments when they are released and return to the community. “We worked to identify what are some of the factors making it harder for those to continue their treatments,” Evans said. Evans expressed that people are at 120 times greater risk of experiencing an overdose in the two weeks after they exit jail.

Evans identified that there are textual factors in understanding how this is a big change for jails. “Historically few of them or maybe none of them offer this type of evidence-based treatment inside of a jail. It’s a big cultural shift for them to now take on this liability to provide this type of care, Evans said. “There was some work to be done around the understanding what are these medications and how we address the stigma around them.”

According to Evans, the following are some barriers that occur:

  • Patients receiving care without medications have been a challenging barrier. In addition, health insurance is paused when someone enters jail because the jail provides health care, but when they exit the jail, they may not have active insurance. Getting healthcare on the outside is difficult because of that barrier.
  • Lack of identification was another practical barrier to receiving care in the community. Since, pharmacists require you to present your ID before receiving medications.
  • Transportation issues have also been a challenge, our sites represent both rural and urban areas of Massachusetts, but this was a common barrier, irrespective of where they live and where they are meant to receive treatment. If it’s in a place without transportation, no car, no way to get to treatment, it may be difficult for them to get there.
  • Moreover, these early quick releases from court gave little time for the court to make a decision or prepare for treatment continuation. As a result, courts, jails, and treatment centers must work together in collaboration in some way. The problem needs to be eliminated.

“Our goal as researchers are to spotlight here are some areas where stakeholders could focus their attention and maybe come together to brainstorm on how we could overcome this challenge.”

When it comes to reducing opioid overdosing Evans says it’s important that they’re engaged. “We know the treatment medication to treat opioid overdose disorder are very effective, but only for as long as people continue to take the medication and engage in the treatment,” she said. But it is the barrier that makes this process difficult.

The researchers are partnered with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to help ensure they are framing the right questions, contextualizing their findings, and translating the actions into findings. The researchers are planning to level the playing field by having these individuals be able to access health care and achieve health in their population.

“As each of the houses of correction is standing up for a program like this one, we want to engage with them to learn from them, Evans said. “The jails are often doing really important work that goes unrecognized so this is new work they have not done previously, it is a lot of institutional change, it requires a lot of leadership, training, communication among staff, and collaboration.”

This research project is to take five years to complete, but they hope in the future that these findings in Massachusetts will be implemented in other justice settings. They are still to indicate findings for how each challenge has impacted overdoses.