Bill targeting opioid abuse heads to governor’s desk

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BOSTON – Massachusetts will become the first state in the nation to allow partial fills of painkiller prescriptions, patients will be empowered to direct physicians not to prescribe them with potentially addictive synthetic opiates, and screening of middle and high school students for signs of substance abuse and addiction will be routinized statewide under legislation that passed the state Senate and was sent to Gov. Charlie Baker Thursday.

The bill cleared the Senate 37-0, following unanimous House passage on Wednesday, and some lawmakers said they believed it would be the most important bill they’ll pass this session. About four people die each day in Massachusetts from drug overdoses, with opioids, as the synthetics are called, playing a big role, lawmakers said.

“Too many people are dying. It’s a scary time for all of us,” said Sen. Vinny deMacedo of Plymouth.

Lawmakers described the bill as a compromise that drew from proposals offered by the House, the Senate and Baker, who is vacationing this week in Utah and is expected to sign the bill once he returns.

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan delivered a forceful defense of the bill’s call for statewide student assessments and screenings aimed at identifying individuals with substance abuse problems or at risk of addiction. The screenings, she said, are “100 percent voluntary,” with opt-out allowances for parents and students.

Noting she’s encountered many families who were shocked to learn their addicted children began using drugs in school, Flanagan said few parents and students opt out of existing pilot screening programs and to those who do, she cautioned, “What don’t you want to know?”

Sen. John Keenan of Quincy became emotional as he explained to colleagues how he and his brothers intervened with their father to ensure he received recovery services 25 years ago. Keenan said every family with an addicted family member deserves the same shot at recovery that his father had.

The bill, Keenan said, includes a first-in-the-nation drug stewardship program to be financed by the pharmaceutical industry and aimed at the collection, transportation and safe disposal of unwanted drugs. The program, he said, would require the drug industry “to stand up and take responsibility for the problem they created.”

Sen. Karen Spilka said prescription painkillers are a “Godsend for many people” and a “curse to others.”

Spilka said she appeared before the Holliston Board of Selectmen Wednesday night and encountered a man who hugged her after explaining that his son passed away from a heroin overdose in June. The senator said she was sad to hear the news, but heartened in knowing the Senate planned to pass the opioid bill Thursday. – Michael Norton