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Gov. Baker Again Calls For Action On Opioid Bill

A white man in a suit stands in front of a bookshelf.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, appearing to grow more impatient as each day passes, prodded state legislators this week to pass a comprehensive bill designed to address the deadly opioid addiction crisis in the state.

Baker filed an opioid bill last October, testified for it at a legislative committee meeting in November, and last December during a swing through western Massachusetts that included a visit to an expanded addiction treatment center in Greenfield, spoke of the urgency he felt on the issue.

" I am hopeful that when they come back in January this issue will be dealt with early. I don't want this to drag out to July or August," said Baker in December. " There are four people a day dying  in the Commonwealth of an opioid overdose. This is a monstrous crisis."

Now at the end of February, the opioid legislation remains in a conference committee that is trying to work out differences between the versions passed by the House and Senate. Baker, at a Statehouse event Wednesday to promote a public information campaign on the safe storage and disposal of prescription drugs, said the clock is ticking and the opioid death toll rising.

" We have legislation pending in a conference committee that everybody says they support, that everybody agrees would be a terrific set of tools to put in the toolbox to help us deal with the epidemic here in Massachusetts, and I'd like to see some actiong on that, yes. And I'd especially like to see it before , as I said, it gets lost in the sort of cacophony of the rest of the work that's going to be going on up here between now and July."

The bills passed by the House and Senate differ in certain ways from Baker’s own proposal. The House version limits initial opioid painkiller prescriptions to a seven-day supply. The governor’s bill would impose a three-day supply limit.

Baker wants to let doctors commit patients involuntarily to drug treatment facilities for up to 72 hours, if they are considered in immediate danger.  The House version includes a requirement that overdose victims who show up at hospital emergency rooms be held 24 hours for evaluation.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Wednesday, said the six-member conference committee is making progress toward producing a compromise bill.

"My feeling is, I don't think there are any large, major ( sticking) points, " said DeLeo. " I think there are a number of small points that I think they're just trying to address. But I can't say there's one major issue that's really holding up the bill. I think there's just a number of things we're trying to factor how we address them."

Despite the determination on the part of the Democratic legislature and Republican governor to do something about the opioid crisis, it would be a mistake to think the legislation alone can solve the problem, according to State Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke.

For one thing, he said insurance companies should be made to pay for stays of up to 30 days in treatment centers – 14 days is now standard – and cover at least 2 months of follow-up outpatient care.

" We have to chance the social mind set around heroin," said Vega. " There was a time when it was unheard of that someone would try heroin and now it seems to be the next thing after someone has a beer. I think the social mindset around drugs and alcohol has really changed and legislation can't change that."

Also this week Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Katherine Clark announced legislation, with support from two Republican members of Congress, that would let patients request that pharmacists only partially fill opioid prescriptions.

The bill’s goal is to reduce the number of pills in circulation.

Material from WBUR and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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