Baker signs opioid abuse prevention tools into law

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STATE HOUSE — An emotional Gov. Charlie Baker fought back tears Monday as he recounted the stories he’s heard from the parents of young people who have died from drug overdoses and letters he received from students at North Shore Recovery High School, detailing their “heartbreaking stories of addiction and loss.”

“This is truthfully one of those moments where I barely know what to say,” Baker said after signing into law what he called “the most comprehensive measure in the country to combat opioid addiction” and a signal to those who shared their stories of addiction “that the commonwealth is listening and we will keep fighting for all of you.”

Joined by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the attorney general, people recovering from addiction, families of those who have died from drug overdoses, law enforcement officials and health care providers, Baker signed into law the fourth opioid-related bill and the most significant non-budget bill to this point in his administration.

“Ridding our communities of substance misuse and addiction will take more than one bill, or one budget or one program. It’s going to require constant aggressive teamwork from Beacon Hill to our communities,” the governor, who made the state’s heroin and opioid problem a centerpiece of his 2015 inaugural address, said. “It is pretty powerful to stand here with such a dynamic and bipartisan group of leaders who have different job titles and different stories to sign a bill that will move us forward in this fight.”

The bill (H 4056) limits first-time opioid prescriptions for adults and all opiate prescriptions for minors to a seven-day supply, gives patients the ability to request that a doctor prescribe less than the standard number of opioid pills or have a pharmacist fill less than the full amount of an opiate prescription, and will make screening of middle and high school students for signs of substance abuse and addiction more regular across Massachusetts. The legislation was sent to Baker’s desk last week after lawmakers spent about seven weeks reconciling House and Senate versions.

“Our battle, our fight against substance abuse continues and it’s going to continue for some time. This isn’t the end, this is a great beginning, but we still have some more work to do,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo said. “I don’t have to tell you that no neighborhood, no segment of our society is immune to this horrible disease.”

In recent years, DeLeo said, funerals “almost seemed to be a weekly occurrence,” sometimes for children he had coached in baseball years before. At the funerals, DeLeo said, he could see that drug addiction was “draining vitality from each of our cities and towns, extinguishing lives and stealing souls.”

“In all my years in the Legislature, I have never seen anything or experienced anything like I experienced with the number of deaths as result of substance abuse overdose,” he said.

According to the Department of Public Health, the 1,099 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid overdose deaths in 2014 represented a 65 percent increase over the 668 overdoses in 2012 and a 21 percent increase over the 911 overdose cases in 2013.

Preliminary DPH data points to a higher number of overdose deaths during the first nine months of 2015 — the most recent data released — than during the same nine-month period in 2015.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg noted the shift in viewing drug addiction as a criminal act that warranted arrests and jail time to seeing it as a medical condition similar to diabetes or cancer that responds better to medical treatment than incarceration.

“We’ve turned a very big corner. This problem used to be seen as a crime,” he said. “It’s now understood to be a disease, a disease that’s experienced by people in every corner of the commonwealth no matter the color of their skin, their background, their economic circumstances.”

Attorney General Maura Healey heaped praise on Baker and the Legislature for making the state’s opioid epidemic a priority, and acknowledged the thousands of families in Massachusetts who have suffered through a relative’s opioid-related death.

“To those who have lost loved ones, to those who have loved ones who are hurting, who are struggling, who are in pain, I recognize — we all recognize — that this legislation will not bring your loved ones back,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “But I want you to know and I hope that you find some measure and comfort knowing that today there is legislation that is going to change the course for other families, for other individuals in this state.”

At Monday’s bill-signing “representing the thousands of grieving mothers who have lost their children to overdoses,” Janis McGrory of Harwich relayed the pain of losing her 23-year-old daughter Liz to a heroin overdose five years ago.

“Liz made the mistake of taking that first pill. Within two years she was a heroin addict. She once said to me, ‘mom, I wish I had never taken that first pill, I would rather have cancer,'” McGrory said. “Her life was then years of numerous detoxes, programs, hospitals, overdoses, court appearances, jail stays and even homelessness. Not a life I would ever have dreamed my daughter would have and certainly not one that she ever imagined.”

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, himself an alcoholic who has worked for years to help others through recovery, noted that addiction is a disease that harms the addict and all of the people who care about the addict.

“If this bill helps one addict and one family, it’s done its job,” he said.

The bill Baker signed into law Monday will likely serve as a model as other states seek to take action in the face of rising numbers of opioid deaths. Baker said he has heard from other governors that “if we could get a bill passed here in Massachusetts that could create a framework around a number of these issues” like the seven-day limit on first prescriptions “that could become a template that the other states around New England could look at and hopefully incorporate into legislation in their own states.”

Healey, too, said the new law is likely to be looked to as an example of how states can stem the tide of opioid deaths.

“We have not seen and we will not see a more comprehensive, a more thoughtful, a more game-changing piece of legislation in this entire country,” she said.

Asked if the bill he signed Monday represents the greatest accomplishment for his young administration, Baker demurred and said it is the most personal issue he has worked on since taking office.

“There are very few things that are as personal to many of us as this is, and part of what makes it so personal … it’s very easy for all of us to walk in the shoes of a lot of the people who have been so horribly affected by this,” Baker said. “When a parent says to me, ‘it’s been hell,’ — I used those words specifically today because I’ve heard them over and over and over again — that’s something I think all of us can identify with.”