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Republican lawmaker believes he has answer to the opioid epidemic

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

A Republican lawmaker is asking for a new pilot program in Snohomish County that he believes could be the answer to the opioid epidemic.

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The proposal from Republican state Representative Dave Hayes builds off an existing program in Snohomish County that teams deputies with embedded social workers who go out to encampments to try to get people off the streets.

“They go around to the homeless folks within Snohomish County, most of whom are struggling from addiction issues and/or mental health issues, and they expedite those folks to programming to get the services that they need to get themselves clean, move away from their addiction issues, address their mental health issues, address their housing issues and also their medical health as well.”

His bill, HB 2287, uses an existing facility on the county campus to take things a step further.

“Snohomish County has had this model in place for some time but they haven’t had the sufficient funding to open up a diversion center that would be a centralized location on the Snohomish County campus where they have 44 beds available in an old work release facility, and it’s right next door to the Carnegie building where they plan to have the programming in place to expedite these folks to the services they need.”

Approval of the bill and the pilot program would solve that funding problem.

Hayes believes having everything in a central location will be the key to the program’s success.

“That work release facility that Snohomish County currently has and the 44 beds, that’s the missing link to get these folks off the streets and stabilized because these folks are living in tents, and it is a less than optimal situation for these folks to be successful and recidivising [keeping] them out of the criminal justice system and taking the stress away from them, getting them into some sort of permanent housing and addressing their jobless issues and housing issues and addiction and mental health issues.”

The average stay at the facility is expected to be about two weeks, with a focus on getting drug users stabilized with medication-assisted treatment with drugs like Suboxone.

The ultimate goal?

“Move the program forward to demonstrate that bringing these folks into temporary housing, expediting them to services, keeping them out of the jails, out of the emergency rooms and expediting them to detox facilities, mental health treatment facilities, getting them into housing, job training and job placement that in the end will keep people out of the criminal justice system and out of emergency rooms.”

If the Legislature approves the bill, the pilot program would be covered by a one-time grant administered by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Snohomish County would have to report the results of the program back to the association, which would report them to the Legislature at the end of 2019.

Hayes says the bill calls for reporting on specific metrics to prove the program’s success and show lawmakers that this should be the approach statewide.

“They’ll have to report back on recidivism rates, folks going to the emergency room, folks going into and out of jail, whether or not they were connected with treatment programs and whether or not they finished and were successful with their treatment.”

This bill is already on the fast track. It got a hearing in the House Public Safety Committee on day one of the legislative session. Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary was front and center to stress the urgency of getting the pilot project approved.

“My county has 10 percent of the state’s population but we have 18 percent of the state’s heroin deaths and overdoses,” he explained. “Between 2011 and 2016, so just a few years behind us, we had two-and-a-half times the amount of heroin deaths that we did traffic fatalities.”

Hayes is a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department and has seen first hand just how damaging the opioid epidemic is. He says what we’ve been doing simply isn’t working.

“Washington state and law enforcement across the nation have been doing things the same way for so many years with no positive outcomes, and Washington state has not done a good job in investing in capital projects when it comes down to mental health and addiction, and right now in Washington state we just don’t have those facilities available. This is going to be a launching pad for those type of services I believe.”

Hayes says this legislation is top on his to-do list this session.

“Getting this bill through, this is my number one priority this year. But it’s also ensuring that we get sufficient funding. The governor was good enough to include $500,000 is his proposed budget. I’m going to be looking for more than that.”

The pilot project would be a one-year program, but an amendment to Hayes’ bill calls for Snohomish County to continue the program another two years on its own.

If the Legislature approves the bill, the pilot project could be up and running by this summer.

Hayes believes the report back on the initial pilot project will prove the program is a success and show lawmakers this is the way to move forward across the state.

More from reporter Hanna Scott

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