The police department in Springfield, Massachusetts and the city’s health department are looking to share information they hope could prevent opioid deaths.
If public health department professionals could get the names and home addresses of people who have survived drug overdoses from the police, they could do outreach with referrals to treatment and counseling programs and supply family members with overdose reversal medications, perhaps saving countless lives.
But laws that protect the privacy of people who interact with the police and the healthcare system stand in the way of such a simple exchange of information.
Nonetheless discussions are underway to see if there is a legal avenue for collaboration, according to Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris.
"That is our goal and that has been our conversation," she said.
Speaking at a recent hearing of the Springfield City Council Health and Human Services Committee, Springfield Police Sergeant Brian Elliott said collaborating with another city department makes perfect sense.
"We want to see good work done," said Elliott of the police. "We do not want to go to an overdose. An overdose, in our opinion, is a failure. It is a missed opportuniity to prevent it. So,we concur and subscribe to all the good practices. It (requires) finding a pathway to meet all our needs."
City Councilor Jesse Lederman, the committee chairman, encouraged the pursuit of a partnership.
"If we save one life with this, then it is worth doing," said Lederman.
Springfield has been disproportionately impacted by the opioid crisis. In 2018, when drug-related deaths were down statewide from the previous year, the number of Springfield residents who died of a drug overdose doubled. Deaths fell slightly in 2019. Complete data from 2020 is not yet available.
In response to the alarming rise in opioid deaths in Springfield, the state health department authorized a needle exchange program and additional medication assisted treatment programs.
Tapestry Health was contracted to do outreach work, which Gabe Quaglia, Post Overdose Outreach Coordinator for Tapestry, said he is eager to expand.
"We don't know with the work we have done if we have prevented any repeat overdoses," he told the committee. But he said last year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, 173 outreach attempts were made in the greater Springfield area and contact with an overdose survivor, family member ,or circle of friends was successful in 60 percent of the cases.
Hospitals are required to counsel drug overdose survivors about addiction treatment, but Patrick Meuse, the Complex Care Coordinator at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, said a hospital emergency room is not the ideal setting for it.
Reaching out to the overdose survivor a few days after they leave the emergency room is a better way, Meuse told the committee.
"Having an opportunity for shorter encounters in a more natural setting such as someones home, we believe will led to better outcomes," he said.
The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department reported that in the last 18 months it provided medication assisted treatment to more than 1,500 inmates to help them battle drug addiction.
A pilot program using medications to treat opioid addiction in jails started in September 2019 in six Massachusetts counties.