In the coming months, every patient over 12 years old seeking treatment from the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics will be screened for opioid use. Under the new program, funded by a $325,000 federal grant, anyone testing positive for opioids and benzodiazepines will be subjected to a brief “intervention,” said clinic medical director Dr. Charles Fenzi, to determine if the drug use is properly managed or causing a problem. When it’s the latter, Fenzi said patients would be referred to a treatment provider.

While opioid use and abuse has emerged as a national problem, Fenzi said such abuse is worse — as measured by overdose deaths per 100,000 — in Santa Barbara County compared to the statewide average: 12.3 percent versus 10.2. Last year, county health officials reported that drug overdose deaths exceeded the number of traffic fatalities and that prescription drug abuse had jumped 30 percent over the previous five years.

Fenzi estimated that 200 of the clinics’ 18,000 patients are now taking prescription opioids. That number, he cautioned, is probably low and does not include patients using heroin or other street opiates. Of all new admissions to drug treatment programs run by the County of Santa Barbara, prescription drug and heroin abusers make up 30 percent. Half the heroin addicts now seeking treatment through county programs report their addiction started with prescription drugs.

Fenzi said the new federal grant would enable the clinics to hire one full-time equivalent clinical psychologist and part-time support staff. He said the clinics have long wanted to integrate behavioral health treatment into the delivery of primary care medicine, but until the passage of the Affordable Care Act — and ancillary legislation — programs that “treated the mind” were reimbursed at only 50 percent the rate of programs that “treated the body.” Legally, such programs now require equal compensation and access.


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