Baker may tackle opioid abuse epidemic this week

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BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker, who made dealing with drug addiction a priority as he took office in January, is expected to put forward a proposal for tackling the issue this week with a goal of getting comprehensive legislation passed by early 2016.

The recommendations are likely to extend steps to prevent opioid drug abuse and provide treatment that may be funded through almost $28 million included in a supplemental budget measure that recently passed the Senate. According to a Boston Globe report on Sunday, Baker plans to call for giving hospitals the power to hold drug abusers against their will for three days to give medical professionals time to evaluate them and seek legal permission to hold them longer for treatment.

The proposal, modeled after existing rules for mental illness commitments, revives longstanding concerns about the ethics and efficacy of what is known among medical specialists as “coerced treatment.” But officials say it is an appropriate response to a deadly problem, which claimed more than 1,000 lives in Massachusetts in 2014 alone.

Baker may also recommend broadening resources for abusers who are civilly committed for rehabilitation treatment by family members, known as Section 35. A roadmap of key initiatives to contain a surge in opioid addiction, released by Baker in June, calls for increasing the number of beds in rehab facilities and moving treatment for women committed under the program out of a state prison in Framingham. The supplemental 2016 budget bill included almost $6 million for moving the women’s program to Taunton State Hospital.

Visits to Massachusetts by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton earlier this month drew renewed attention to the opioid abuse crisis that has plagued both the Bay State and the nation. Opioids are derived from the same pain-suppressing chemicals found in morphine and heroin, and include drugs like oxycontin and fentanyl. The state public health department has said that 1,256 people died in Massachusetts from drug overdoses in 2014, a third more than in the previous year and up from 456 deaths in 2004.

The actions recommended in June by the governor’s task force on opioid addiction also calls for broadening civil commitment law to make involuntary transport and assessment permissible for someone at risk of harm from substance abuse. It also calls for adding 100 treatment beds by July 2016, creating a state database of treatment services, expanded mobile emergency services, and state programs in schools aimed at preventing opioid abuse and addiction.

Baker called opioid abuse a “public health epidemic” in releasing the task force’s recommendations in June, describing them as steps to “treat addiction.” Baker, a Republican, is a former health care executive who led one of the state’s largest health maintenance organizations, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

Marylou Sudders, secretary of the state health and human services department, referred to addiction as a “chronic medical disease, not unlike diabetes or heart disease,” in a statement releasing the recommendations. Sudders led the governor’s task force. “The solution requires a strong public health approach focusing on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery,” she said.

The Senate’s supplemental budget bill includes $3.8 million for substance abuse counselors and $3 million for expanded substance abuse coverage in MassHealth, according to Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). The Senate measure must be reconciled with a House of Representatives supplemental budget bill that contains some differences before the legislation can be sent to Baker for consideration.

Earlier this month, the state Senate passed a bill pushed by Sen. Jennifer Flanagan of Leominster aimed at curbing opioid abuse through tighter prescription practices, changes in health insurance requirements and verbal substance-abuse screenings for schoolchildren, the State House News Service reported. In the House, lawmakers passed a bill criminalizing trafficking in fentanyl, with penalties of up to 20 years in prison. The news service said street dealers sometimes mix fentanyl with heroin to increase its potency.