Baker okay with screening students for substance abuse

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STATE HOUSE — With a Senate bill aimed at preventing drug abuse teed up for debate next week, Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday that he is on board with encouraging schools to verbally screen students for substance use.

Though the governor had previously seemed to disparage the idea by suggesting it could exacerbate the “stigma” surrounding substance abuse, Baker now says he misunderstood the Senate’s initial proposal and would be supportive if the state can help schools pay for the screenings.

“When this was first described to me, I thought people were literally talking about mandatory blood draws,” Baker said Friday. Baker said that would have raised privacy concerns.

On Friday, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means reported out legislation that would require school districts to verbally screen 7th and 10th grade students for signs of addiction and at-risk behavior, while allowing children or their guardians to opt out. Information gleaned from screenings would be protected from subpoena, under the legislation (S 2020).

“Unless we as a Commonwealth choose to pony up the money to pay for a program like that, I don’t think it’s appropriate or fair for us to just tell locals to do much of anything,” Baker said. He said, “If we think this is something that we want every community in the Commonwealth to be involved in, then we as a Commonwealth should pay for it.”

Baker has, in fact, proposed to pay for expanded use of substance abuse screening in public schools, including charter schools, in a mid-year budget bill that he filed back in July, which is still pending before the House.

According to a breakdown provided to the News Service by the administration of how it intends to spend the $27.8 million requested for substance abuse prevention, the Department of Public Health intends to put $1 million toward expanding so-called SBIRT screenings.

The type of screenings Baker has proposed using is the same technique that is currently in use in about 10 schools and that Sen. Jennifer Flanagan said Thursday the Senate aims to require in all public schools. A task force convened by Baker earlier this year also recommended that government “increase the use of screenings in schools to identify at-risk youth for behavioral health issues.”

Ways and Means determined implementation of its bill would cost $1.2 million, and Senate leaders envision using the funding contained in Baker’s budget bill to finance the initiatives, most notably to train teachers, nurses and guidance counselors to perform drug screenings.

When asked during an event hosted by Politico last week whether he would support the Senate bill to “have high school students be screened for symptoms of drug addiction,” Baker said, “I don’t really like that idea very much.”

When asked why he opposed the concept, the governor continued, “I don’t think in the end that’s going to get you what you want. I think that’s going to do just the opposite of what you want. The biggest issue we have with addiction is stigma. That is not going to help us very much with stigma.”

Flanagan said she has had to combat misinterpretations that her screening proposal would involve actual chemical tests.

The powerful committee that drafted the legislation took a slightly different approach on some aspects from the Special Senate Committee on Opioid Addiction Prevention, Treatment and Recovery Options headed by Flanagan.

The special committee recommended that Schedule II and III medications be able to be filled partially, with the remainder available to be filled “according to federal regulations applicable to partially filled prescriptions.”

According to a summary, Ways and Means proposed instead requiring pharmacists to tell people they can partially fill Schedule III prescriptions alone, while directing the attorney general to inquire into the legality of partially filling Schedule II prescriptions.

Schedule II includes some of the most dangerous opiates, including oxycodone.

Prescription painkillers have been blamed for worsening the state’s opiate addiction crisis, as leftovers can be pilfered from medicine cabinets and patients can turn into addicts with overuse. On Friday, Baker encouraged residents to collect unwanted prescription drugs and dispose of them on Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday.

“There is an outstanding question as to whether the partial filling of Schedule II controlled substances conflicts with federal law, so the bill requires the AG to seek guidance from the federal [Drug Enforcement Administration] on Schedule II substances,” Ways and Means spokeswoman Rachel Lefsky told the News Service in a statement. “The bill allows partial fills for Schedule III substances because the provision does not conflict with the federal law or regulation regarding Schedule III substances. Additionally, the bill ensures that we are not putting a law on the books that has the potential to impact the livelihood of registered pharmacists.”

Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat and Flanagan’s vice chairman of the special committee, was the only lawmaker to vote against the Ways and Means bill in a Friday afternoon 16-1 vote.

“I am voting in opposition to today’s poll by the Ways and Means Committee because the proposed redraft has stripped the bill of one of its most critical elements — a law that would give patients the right to refuse the full quantity of their prescribed opiate if they feel they only need a partial fill of the prescription,” Keenan said in a statement to the News Service. He said the Ways and Means version is a good proposal but was weakened. He said, “If we are to successfully combat this epidemic that is claiming four lives each day in Massachusetts, we need to be bold and innovative; I believe the bill as originally presented to the Ways and Means Committee is bold and innovative, and deserves consideration, in its entirety, by the full Senate.”

Under the legislation, individuals would also be able to alert prescribers not to give them opiates, and it requires training for practitioners who prescribe controlled substances.

— Written by Andy Metzger and Matt Murphy

SW&M Committee Bill:

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