Bay State steps up fight against drug abuse epidemic

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BOSTON – Massachusetts is rising up against drug addiction after deaths due to heroin and painkiller dependency climbed 8 percent over the past year. Gov. Charlie Baker has made the issue a priority, as have many lawmakers from across the state.

As a result, new laws will come into effect that aim to combat the crisis starting this summer.

The stakes are stark. In 2015 alone, the state Department of Public Health recorded 1,379 opioid-related deaths. Officials estimate that 390 people died from overdoses from January through March of this year. The number of deaths per year have risen steadily since 526 occurred 2010.

In March, Baker signed a law intended to combat the ongoing crisis by limiting first-time prescriptions for addictive painkillers to a one-week supply, with exceptions for those who need the drugs over a long period to treat chronic pain or cancer. On signing the measure, the governor tweeted a picture of the bill and said: “To the families who have shared your stories about opioid addiction I say thanks. You made this law happen.”

Speaking with other New England governors at Harvard Medical School recently, Baker said the extent of the opioid crisis became dramatically clear as the number of fatal overdoses surged by an estimated 49 percent in 2014.

“Once I raised the question with a lot of my colleagues in the health care world, the answer I got is ‘Yeah, it’s a disaster,’” said the former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, one of the state’s largest health maintenance organizations.

The first-term governor went on to outline several problems he hopes to address in the coming months: Fighting trafficking that brings in heroin laced with the dangerous additive fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, or opioid drug; making prescription-monitoring programs more accessible and more compatible with those used in other states; and working with medical schools in Massachusetts to make classes in pain-management mandatory, so as to better educate future doctors about the proper protocol in prescribing opioids.

Meanwhile he also plans to promote the first-time prescription limit as a broader initiative. Baker, a Republican, recently announced at a New England Council breakfast that he and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, will recommend a nationwide limit on first-time opiate prescriptions to the National Governors Association.

Steps already initiated in Massachusetts will kick in starting in July, when hospitals will be required to perform a substance abuse evaluation on anyone who comes into an emergency room who appears to have overdosed on opioids or heroin. Also, public schools will have to administer verbal screenings to monitor at-risk students, although the students, their parents and their schools are free to opt out of these screenings.

First-responders in the state are allowed to pack and inject overdose victims with naloxone, also known as Narcan, which can reverse the effects of opioids and opiates like heroin. The state health department is funding naloxone purchases in almost two-dozen communities with high overdose rates.

Massachusetts has also added detoxification treatment services around the state, including adding 28 beds at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston and 15 at Taunton State Hospital. Another 30 beds are expected to be ready in Taunton by this summer. Overall, the state is providing funding to add 128 acute treatment service beds for detoxing and stabilizing addicts.

Privately operated treatment centers are also expanding, with one company, Recovery Centers of America, converting a hotel in Westminster into a 90-bed facility and a shuttered hospital in Danvers into one with 209 beds, according to the Boston Business Journal.

In October, the law signed in March mandates that doctors start checking the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program prior to prescribing an opioid, to prevent patients from getting multiple painkiller prescriptions from different doctors. It will also let patients choose to receive a smaller amount of a prescribed drug. If the doctor prescribes a seven-day regimen of 15 pills, a patient can ask the pharmacist to give them less if they wish. The bill also provides civil liability protection for anyone who administers naloxone to reverse an overdose.

Lawmakers curbed Baker’s initial proposals for this year, which called for a three-day limit on first-time opioid prescriptions and to let hospitals hold opiate-addicted patients involuntarily for up to 72 hours. Critics, including some doctors, said those measures were too stringent.

Members of the Bay State congressional delegation have also been pushing legislation to deal with opioid addiction. Proposals from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Katherine Clark and Rep Bill Keating, among others, would let pharmacies sell naloxone without a prescription, and would create federal guidelines for doctors to prescribe naloxone with opiates. Another bill would create drug take-back programs funded through existing federal grants.

Local authorities are also stepping up their efforts. In Gloucester, the police department’s angel program, in which addicts are put into treatment rather than prison for possession of illegal drugs, has helped over 400 people enter treatment in the past year. The success of the effort has prompted other towns around the country to put similar procedures in place.

And the entire community is reportedly benefiting. By pairing addicts with ‘angels’ who help them locate and begin treatment, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello has lowered the rate of drug-related crime by 27 percent over the past year, according to a report in

Combating addiction effectively often requires outreach, to help people find help. To that end, the state health department has increased efforts to help the addicted find the resources they need through a number of programs like The website helps users locate treatment centers, and provides information and support for addicts as well as their families and friends.

The state has also created evidence-based programs to help teens and young adults confront addiction issues. And the state has added more community health centers in high-need areas, which will offer drug-addiction medication, including buprenorphine, naltrexone, and methadone.

Baker closed his remarks at the Harvard Medical School panel discussion by appealing not only for bipartisan legislative support, but for citizens to come together in the face of the addiction crisis and work cooperatively to help those afflicted by it.

“Nobody on their own is going to get there on this one,” the governor said. “This is going to require a group effort.”