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Massachusetts Saw More Opioid-Related Deaths And Attention To The Issue In 2015

This is a picture of  Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, at podium, outlines the opioid task force's recommendations.
Massachusetts Attorney General's Office
Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey, at podium, outlines the opioid task force's recommendations.

Continuing our series of looking back on the top stories of 2015, the stark reality of opioid abuse became a constant topic in town meetings and news headlines throughout our region. WAMC looks at how Massachusetts addressed the issue this year.In 2014, then Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called the rise of opioid abuse a public health crisis. It was a message echoed by Charlie Baker this past January during his inaugural address.

“Last year Governor Patrick called opiate addiction a public health crisis,” Baker said. “He was right. It is a crisis. It’s one that cuts across every community in the commonwealth.”

The Republican governor shared the story of a family who lost a son to an overdose after he got hooked on opiates following a medical procedure. Baker’s commitment to address the crisis received 30 seconds of applause from the Democratic-led legislature.

“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.”

In the months since, the state has released data on opioid activity and unveiled steps intended to combat it. The latest statistics from October show there were nearly 1,100 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in 2014. The estimate reaches 1,250. The number of confirmed deaths is a 20-percent increase from 2013 and in 2000 just 338 overdose deaths were confirmed. In Pittsfield alone, 14 people died in 2013 compared to 8 the year before.

After convening a working group to provide an action plan, Baker outlined legislation in October that would allow medical professionals to commit a person to treatment involuntarily. It would also limit first-time opioid prescriptions to a 72-hour supply with exceptions for emergency situations as well as chronic and hospice care patients.

“I have lots of friends and colleagues in the healthcare world,” Baker said. “I am astonished by the casual nature and the casual attitude that I find when I talk to them about these medications and issues. That has got to change. Period.”

A number of county sheriffs and the state’s District Attorneys Association are supporting the effort. Berkshire DA David Capeless is the Association’s president.

“One of the most important aspects of this is reducing the amount of opioid medication that is out within our communities,” Capeless said. “Unfortunately a number of people have become addicted it, but also because the large amount is there, there is the temptation and eventually the reality for other people to become addicted to it. We need to stop that flow.”

Groups like the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and the state’s branch of the ACLU have expressed reservations. Still, Baker doesn’t expect a legal challenge saying most of the concerns are simply tweaks.

“We’ve got a lot of support in the healthcare community, the addiction community and a ton of support in the law enforcement community,” Baker said. “A lot of folks in the law enforcement community don’t think that this is law enforcement issue. They think it’s a prevention, education and treatment issue. It’s up to us to work with the legislature to get the solutions enacted into law and then implemented that can help us move in that direction.”

In the meantime, the state legislature is offering a bill that would limit first-time prescriptions to a seven-day supply. Also, any person admitted to the emergency room for a drug overdose would undergo a required substance abuse evaluation within 24 hours. Lawmakers expect to start debating the legislation in January.

Baker says between January and June the state put at least 400 new long-term treatment beds online and expects to roll out another 400 over the next 18 months. Massachusetts also launched an anti-stigma campaign in hopes of making people realize addiction is not a choice, but rather a disease. This past summer, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced a bulk purchasing agreement with the maker of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone or Narcan.

“I’m glad that we’ve now made the trafficking of fentanyl a crime,” Healey said. “We’re starting to see fentanyl show up more and more. Fentanyl is something that the drug cartels have figured out a way to make. It’s actually more dangerous than heroin and its killing people.”

A growing number of communities throughout the state are talking publicly about addiction. In Gloucester, the police chief said any addict who comes to the police station with drugs or needles asking for help would not be arrested. Instead police would immediately help them get treatment. The move received national attention.

Wendy Penner is the director of prevention programs for the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and has been working with schools and law enforcement to educate and empower adults to take action against youth substance use.

“Whether it’s teachers, law enforcement, health care providers, business owners and faith community leaders to understand what are the risk factors that are youth face and what do they need to support them around making healthy decisions,” said Penner.

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