The growing epidemic of addiction in Alaska sheds a new and urgent light on the need for medical detox. Last February, Catholic Native Ministry and First Covenant Church co-hosted a town hall meeting at St. Anthony Catholic Church to address the deadly problem of inaccessible detox beds in Anchorage. Currently, Cook Inlet Tribal Council's 14-bed detox program at the Ernie Turner Center is the only place in Anchorage and the Mat-Su that provides medical detox.
At the meeting, three specific issues were addressed: limited collaboration among stakeholders, a bottleneck at the intake process for detox and inadequate funding.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, state officials and more than 400 other people were in attendance and heard testimony from individuals and family members who have been deeply affected by this problem. These families have been torn apart when their loved ones sought help for detox and were unable to be admitted. These individuals either continue drinking or attempt self-detox, which can be deadly. As one individual testified, "detox saves lives."
As a result of the meeting, a temporary task force, including representatives from the municipality, the state's Division of Behavioral Health and Department of Labor, and service providers, met to work on solutions. To address the bottleneck at intake, the task force approached the State Nursing Board at their March meeting. The board formerly made a strict interpretation of nursing regulations that restricted the level of staff qualified to conduct intake. The outcome of this meeting was clarification of state nursing regulations that now allows the Ernie Turner Center to offer 24/7 admission of detox patients for the first time in four years.
Since March, the 14 beds in the Ernie Turner detox facility have been taken — previously beds often stood empty due to the admissions bottleneck. However, Rebecca Ling, director of recovery services, reports the center still receives more than 50 calls for services every day. Also, with the increase in opioid addictions, treatment is more complicated and providers recognize the need for up to ten times the number of detox beds currently available in Alaska.
We applaud the municipality's efforts to reduce homelessness in Anchorage and we recognize that some people in our homeless population suffer from substance abuse and addiction. However, the Ernie Turner Program staff report that fewer than half of those seeking detox in Anchorage are without permanent shelter. It was also clear in the public testimony at our February town hall meeting that there are many people who need detox treatment beyond the homeless community. In reality, the need for access to detox is shared by all socio-economic groups in Anchorage.
Detox is a medical intervention for a medical condition and should be treated as such. Resources are needed that focus on building a solid continuum of recovery services for individuals who suffer from severe life-threatening addictions.
We are also encouraged by the expanded partnership between Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Southcentral Foundation and look forward to the increased medical expertise SCF will bring when they assume the operation of the detox program in January. However, this does not negate the fact that Anchorage still only has 14 beds for detox, nor that the cost per day per person for detox services is much higher than the $365 state reimbursement rate.
We cannot forget these needs during our current budget shortfalls. We appeal to our municipal leaders, our governor and state legislators and our Alaska members of Congress to redirect funding and work together with providers to create lifesaving solutions that increase access to medical detox treatment for those who need it.
Jim Bell is a member of Catholic Native Ministry and Jane Atuk is a member of First Covenant Church. Both congregations are members of Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together (AFACT).
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Southcentral Foundation.