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Mass AG Gauges Opioid Crisis In Northern Berkshires

State Attorney General Maura Healey says Massachusetts should be doing more to combat the opioid crisis. The Democrat held a roundtable discussion on the epidemic today in North Adams.

Attorney General Healey says the rest of the state could learn something from the northern Berkshires’ approach to the opioid crisis.

“I think the vigils and the walks, the recovery efforts are so important at making more people feel comfortable in coming forward; the efforts around treatment and expanding treatment and access to care; the cultural sort-of reframing and education out of the healthcare professional around, you know, recognizing this as a disease,” Healey says. “Look, I am as mindful as you are of the numbers right now and what we are seeing.”

About 30 people die from opioid overdoses in Berkshire County every year. More than half are from Pittsfield, the county’s largest city. So far this year, that number looks like it’s going to stay the same, which locals officials aren’t happy about.

Statewide, there have been almost 1,000 deaths this year. There were 1,990 total opioid-related deaths in 2016, up from 1,670 in 2015.

In northern Berkshire County, which has several rural stretches, North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright says resources from the state are scarce.

“Enforcement, education, treatment, and prevention,” Alcombright says.

Healey, a Democrat, agrees more funding is needed for the region. Updating lawmakers, Healey says her office’s investigation of prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors is ongoing.

“Efforts to work with some of the pharmacies to dial back on some of their dispensing practices,” Healey says. “Now CVS, and Walgreens and soon more pharmacies will, as a matter of course, always be checking the prescription drug database before dispensing certain opioids.”

In March 2016, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration restricted opioid prescriptions to a 7-day limit in hopes of reducing first-time exposure. Since then, the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program has seen a decline in opioid prescriptions this year – roughly 638,000 reported.

“With regard to prescribing, I am still not happy with we are at as a state,” Healey says. “I just got numbers back recently and even though we had a law passed last year that meant to limit or reduce the prescribing of opioids, we have only seen a 10 percent drop.”

Most deaths in the current epidemic are from street opiates like heroin. State health officials say while fewer people have been dying from opioid overdoses in recent years – partly due to prevention programming – a majority of toxicology reports from fatal encounters show opioids laced with the powerful and deadly synthetic drug fentanyl.

To combat that, the Baker administration expanded access to the overdose reversal drug Naloxone this year, as well as treatment services to high-risk incarcerated populations.

“We are just now re-upping, actually, from my office funds – initially funded by the legislature but I am going to contribute funds once again, as I did at the start to replenish that fund because we know that’s a continued need,” Healey says.

But law enforcement need even more help, Healey says.

“Now having to be properly dressed to address the true hazards of fentanyl, which is ever present,” Healey says.

Healey says prevention is key, and most resources are spent on prevention efforts statewide.

“90 percent of the time addiction is going to start before the age of 18 and the more that we can do to provide young people with the competencies and the wherewithal to take better care of themselves and recognize the dangers, I think that’s where it’s at,” Healey says.

Wendy Penner, Director of Prevention and Wellness at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, says area schools bring drug abuse and prevention classes to students as young as 9.

“When you look at our youth and the substances that they are using its alcohol and marijuana. And marijuana now at a level that is on parity with alcohol and if not surpassing it,” Penner says.

Penner says to curb opioid addiction, addictive behaviors with alcohol and marijuana need to be addressed, too.

Paul Hickling, the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Vice President of Service Operations, says a 17-bed recovery center in Pittsfield will open in October.

“For the North Adams area, though, we would love the idea down the road of a recovery home here,” Hickling says. 

And although the idea was praised, funding remains a sticking point.

“The problem with our recovery home system is that the waiting list is so long and hour to hour people are really struggling with these addiction problems,” Hickling says.

Jennifer Kimball, Project Coordinator for the Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative, agrees.

“There is a profound need for reentry housing, housing for those who suffer from different kinds of mental illness – not just for addiction,” Kimball says.

Kimball says without proper housing, addiction and recovery can become a cycle.

The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition will hold a rally in North Adams Saturday to raise awareness of opioid addiction and recovery.

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