Column: Addressing the Opioid Epidemic

In recent years, misuse of heroin and other opioid drugs has claimed numerous lives and devastated many families across our region.  Statewide, just over 1,000 residents of our Commonwealth died due to opioid use and abuse in 2014, nearly double the 526 opioid-related deaths in 2010, showing how rapidly the rate of opioid-related deaths has increased.

Over the last decade, the Legislature has passed a number of laws and supported a variety of programs geared toward addressing opioid abuse and addiction.  Last year, the Legislature continued in this ongoing effort by passing a law sharply improving access to beds for those in the throes of addiction; authorizing new tools in prevention and data collection; and, clarifying standards of care.  However, mindful that our residents and communities are continuing to suffer, everyone on Beacon Hill is intent on taking further meaningful steps to reduce heroin and opioid abuse.

In particular, I commend Governor Baker and Attorney General Healey for their efforts through the Opioid Working Group, a diverse body of public health experts and leaders from the Legislature, the Administration, our cities and towns, academia, the Judiciary, labor, and others, which the Governor formed to further investigate addiction through research and in-depth policy conversations, including public hearings held throughout the state.   The Working Group has now released their findings and recommendations, an “Action Plan to Address the Opioid Epidemic in the Commonwealth.”

“While opioid addiction is an urgent problem, it is also a chronic medical disease, not unlike diabetes or heart disease,” said Marylou Sudders, Secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) and Chair of the Working Group.  “The solution requires a strong public health approach focusing on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery.  We must also target education and awareness about the potential misuse of opioids to students and their families.”

There are 65 recommendations in the Action Plan, including strategies related to prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery support.  This comprehensive approach is necessary since substance abuse is a complicated, multi-faceted challenge.

On the prevention front, recommendations include: increased awareness that addiction is a disease; an education plan to highlight the risks of opioid misuse; a prescriber education initiative; and, the appointment of an addiction specialist to the numerous state medical Boards of Registration.

To strengthen efforts at intervention with those struggling with opioid abuse, recommendations include improvements to the Prescription Monitoring Program, which seeks to prevent abuse of prescriptions by patients and physicians. Such improvements call for data compatibility with other states and the submittal of prescription data within 24 hours.  Further, additional resources are dedicated to promoting medications that can counter opioid overdoses.

To expand and enhance treatment services and programs, the Action Plan calls for: MassHealth to develop a statewide database of available treatment services; MassHealth to expand emergency service programs to support individuals in crisis; the Department of Public Health (DPH) to add 100 new treatment beds over the next year; DPH to make recovery coaches available in Emergency Departments and hot spots; and, the Group Insurance Commission to ensure all plans cover a wide range of treatment medications.

To improve the efficacy of recovery support, recommendations include urging DPH to strengthen a requirement that all licensed addiction treatment program accept patients on methadone or buprenorphine.  Additionally, the plan calls for EOHHS to establish a single point of accountability for addiction and recovery policy.

There are dozens of other critical recommendations to improve our efforts at combating opioid abuse.  The full report of the Working Group is available at  Preventing opioid abuse is a top priority for me as the Senate Chair of the Public Health Committee, and I am eager to work with Governor Baker, Attorney General Healey, my colleagues, advocates, public health experts, and community leaders to implement these important recommendations and address the opioid epidemic.