There was finally some good news this week on the opioid front in Massachusetts. The number of drug overdose deaths fell by 8.3 percent in 2017 compared with the year before.
Data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that after climbing dramatically upward year-after-year since 2010, the opioid overdose death rate dropped for the first time in 2017.
The number of confirmed and estimated deaths in 2017 was 1,977, down from 2,155 in 2016, but still 200 more fatalities than in 2015.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who has made combating the opioid crisis a signature issue, said in a statement the report is “encouraging news that gives us hope we are beginning to bend the curve of this epidemic.”
The report from state health officials did not say why fewer people died last year as a result of an overdose. Several statistics showed a drop in the number of opioid prescriptions written. The synthetic drug fentanyl was found in 83 percent of the overdose deaths last year.
Dr. Peter Friedmann, an addiction clinician and researcher at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, said the state has done a “great job” getting the overdose-reversing drug naloxone into the hands of first responders and members of the community.
" We don't yet know whether their was a change in the number of overall overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, but we are making a lot of progress in terms of reducing fatalities, which is excellent news," said Friedmann.
For the trend to continue, Friedmann said there needs to be more effective treatment strategies to reduce the number of people who are addicted to opioids.
"If we are really going to make big strides in terms of stopping this epidemic those things are what we need to focus most sharply on," said Friedmann.
Northwestern District Attorney Dave Sullivan, a founding member in 2013 of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County, said opioid deaths fell 60 percent in the county last year.
" A lot of it has to do with people really working together," said Sullivan. "The police are working with treatment providers. We have a really good recovery community. Those things add up and hopefully turn things around."
Massachusetts enacted a wide-ranging law in 2016 that put limits on opioid prescriptions, provided more treatment beds, and promoted preventative programs to fight opioid abuse. Baker, last November, announced follow-up legislation.
" This package takes a targeted approach to increase access to treatment and recovery services, strengthen education and prevention efforts, and we are requesting more flexibility to dispense Narcan ( the brand name for naloxone),to approve new tools to detect fentanyl and expand access to medication-assisted treatment," Baker said when introducing the new legislation at a press conference.
At a legislative hearing in January, Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders called for the House and Senate to pass the new bill. It includes a controversial provision, rejected by the legislature in 2016, that would give medical professionals and police the power to involuntarily send drug users who pose a danger to themselves or others to a treatment center where they could be held for up to 72-hours.
" Involuntary treatment is, and should be, used only as a last resort," said Sudders. " However, when used clinically appropriately, it can save lives and provide an opportunity to engage someone to accept treatment."
State law currently requires a court order to hold someone involuntarily, but the Baker administration argues the severity of the opioid crisis calls for a change.
" Crises of addiction occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week --not only during hours when a court is open," Sudders said.
The proposal is something that will again give many legislators pause, according to State Rep. Carlos Gonzales (D-Springfield).
" It is something we have to have further discussion on," said Gonzales. "I have spoken to families who are frustrated when they can not mandate a hospital or police department to lock somebody up against their will when they know they are in serious danger because of opioid addiction."
Another provision of the bill would establish professional standards for recovery coaches, who help addicts stay clean after treatment. It’s something supported by State Senator Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow).
" I hope that is combined with more resources to get more of these recovery coaches into (hospital) emergency rooms," said Lesser. " We need more resources."
The legislation would continue the state’s crackdown on opioid prescription abuse by requiring all prescribers to convert to electronic prescriptions by 2020.