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Ben Downing: Fighting Addiction

The opioid epidemic claimed 2000 lives in Massachusetts in 2016, the third year in a year of significant increases. In 2014, for the first time in 15 years, the fatal overdose rate in Massachusetts was greater than twice the national average. Of 30 states in a recent federal study, Massachusetts had the highest rate of opioid related Emergency Room visits.

The statistics are staggering to the point of being almost too massive to put into perspective. However, this comparison from a recent NY Times column seemed to cut through. Over the last two years, more Americans died from opiate addiction than died in the entire Vietnam War. We are experiencing a national epidemic, the scope and scale of which is far greater in Massachusetts than in most other states.

In my ten years in office, there were several constants, calls to the office with problems regarding health insurance or unemployment insurance. As the years went by a third category grew and grew. They were the desperate calls of Moms, Dads, Grandparents, aunts, uncles, all trying to help a son, daughter, brother, sister, nephew, niece, family friend or other loved one, get access to the treatment they needed. They were calling trying to save lives.

My office, like the 199 others in the legislature, countless public officials, nonprofits, community organizations, volunteer groups, public safety officials, caregivers and others, did all we could to triage those cases, one by one. In the legislature, working with the Baker & Patrick administrations, we attempted to respond to the unrelenting need for treatment & care, while working to try and get ustream with prevention & education.

No matter how successful or well intentioned those efforts were and have been, it’s clear that much more must be done. 

One place to start, would be a dedicated funding stream for the variety of services that are needed to end the epidemic. The state budget is under intense pressure. A combination of rising healthcare costs and decades of tax cuts have left many programs & agencies functioning far below their need. No matter the support for prioritizing treatment, without a dedicated source of funding, those in need will go without and the increase in deaths will continue unabated.

Of late, leaders have talked about increasing the tax on recently legalized marijuana and using those resources for treatment. That is a start, but it shouldn’t be the end. If you want to sell legal opioids in Massachusetts you should have to pay into a treatment fund to support universal access to treatment. Patients should be able to get pain relief, but companies that profited from an epidemic that killed more than the Vietnam War should have to pay to ensure we don’t double down on the deadly past few years.

Addiction is a horrible disease, but we can treat it and avoid losing thousands of more of our neighbors, friends, family members and loved ones. The only question is - are we willing to make the commitment to do all that's necessary. I hope the answer is yes 

Ben Downing Represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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