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Massachusetts Addressing Opioid Abuse Statewide

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Like the administration before him, Governor Charlie Baker is calling opioid abuse in Massachusetts a public health emergency. The Republican has unveiled initial steps his administration plans to take in fighting heroin and prescription drug abuse and addiction.During his January inaugural address Governor Baker told the story of a family who lost a son to an overdose. The Republican then pledged to combat opioid abuse and was cut off by applause from members of the Democratic-led legislature.

“Now as a parent, my heart goes out to John and Stephanie for their devastating loss,” Baker said. “As governor, I intend to tackle this problem head-on.”

Baker announced the first-ever public release of state-collected data on the number of painkiller prescriptions written and overdose deaths in each county. Topping out at 16.8, 15.7 and 15.5 percent of a population, it finds Plymouth, Bristol and Barnstable counties have the highest rates of persons with “activity of concern” such as receiving prescriptions from different doctors or pharmacies. Hampden is next highest at 14.8 percent while Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire counties range from roughly 11 to 9 percent. As part of the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless has been critical of the medical community, saying it over-prescribes painkillers like Vicodin and Percocet. He mentioned the issue during his oath of office this January.

“These highly addictive drugs have done just what we should have expected,” Capeless said. “They effectively treated pain and they also created a whole new group of people who became desperate addicts who eventually turned to much cheaper heroin. This surge in the use of heroin has caused a rise in criminal activity here and across the commonwealth, some of it violent.”

Capeless says there’s been a 600 percent increase in schedule-2 opioids prescribed in the county over the past 18 years.

Governor Baker has created a 16-member group of health, law enforcement and public leaders to develop strategies around prevention, addiction, treatment and recovery. Attorney General Maura Healey is one of the 16. The task force expects to hold four public hearings and submit recommendations in May.

Hopeful for state funding, Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler says his department has plans to create a separate in-house treatment facility for inmates with drug problems. He adds a pretrial opiate treatment program is also being pieced together.

“While they’re here instead of just that time we can get them involved in this opiate treatment,” Bowler said. “It’s also an incentive for them and their defense attorneys. When they go to trial or sentencing they can say ‘Look what my client has achieved while being incarcerated.’ They’ve been cleaned up and dealt with the addiction problem which probably got them in jail in the first place.”

District Attorney Capeless says criminal activity committed by addicts and drug dealers needs be disentangled from the addiction conversation and addressed outside of the justice system.

“The people who in a sense get left behind, the addicts they’re customers and victims of these drug dealers,” Capeless said. “Those people need to be helped. It’s going to happen necessarily through the criminal justice system.”

The Berkshire County Sheriff’s office partners with regional organizations like The Brien Center that specialize in substance abuse where people undergo a full assessment to match them with treatment which could be a half-way house or medications. Dr. Jennifer Michaels is medical director.

“It’s called Vivitrol,” Michaels explained. “It’s provided in an injection form and it’s given once a month. What it does is it binds to our brain’s opioid receptors and kind of gums up our receptors. So if a person uses oxycotton or heroin that drug will not have access to the receptors. So using is a waste of time.”

Governor Baker is also calling on insurers to tighten up opioid prescribing practices. While Michaels says doctors are being educated about safe-prescribing she has concerns.

“That is pills become less available, which is a good thing, people are turning to heroin,” said Michaels.

Additional data from the state’s health department show that in 2013, there were 978 projected unintentional opioid overdose deaths. That’s a 46 percent increase over 2012.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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