Column: Expanding Efforts to Prevent Opioid Addiction

I recently attended the first annual recognition night of the Stoneham Substance Abuse Coalition.  This organization, like similar coalitions in many of our communities, brings together parents, students, educators, law enforcement, healthcare providers, and elected officials to combat the scourge of substance abuse and addiction, particularly among young people.  For me, the highlight of the evening was listening to a young man named Pierce describe the battle he waged for years with drugs and alcohol, and how he is now dedicating his life to helping other young people fight this terrible disease.

Sadly, there are far too many people of all ages struggling with addiction in our communities for Pierce to help them all.  Fortunately, Pierce is not alone in these efforts, and our local and statewide focus on a comprehensive approach to fighting substance abuse is making a real difference in saving lives.

A few months ago the Opioid Working Group, convened by Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey, released an Action Plan with 65 specific recommendations to enhance prevention, strengthen intervention, expand treatment services, and improve the efficacy of recovery support.  Many of these recommendations are already well on their way to being implemented.

In the FY16 state budget, signed into law in early July, the state legislature and Governor Baker substantially increased funding for substance abuse treatment and other services.  And, just last week, a new insurance coverage requirement for up to 14 days of detoxification services and inpatient addiction treatment went into effect for both private insurance and MassHealth (this was a provision included in substance abuse legislation signed into law by Governor Patrick last year).

I’m also pleased to report that last Thursday the Massachusetts Senate debated and passed a comprehensive bill focused on prevention and reducing the number of opiate pills in circulation by working with doctors, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacists, and patients.

The bill adds a simple yet effective tool known as Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) to the list of screenings that schools conduct to help identify youth engaging in risky or abusive behaviors in order to match them with appropriate services before they may become dependent on tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs.  The results of these screenings would be kept confidential to ensure students’ privacy.

The legislation requires pharmaceutical companies to establish or participate in drug-take back programs to help reduce the number of excess prescription pills that are diverted and misused, or pay an assessment into a prevention trust fund based on the quantity of their product being dispensed in Massachusetts.

The Drug Formulary Commission is directed to publish a list of non-opiate pain management products that may be used as lower risk alternatives.  Patients will also be able to voluntarily reduce the amount of an opiate that is dispensed to them at a pharmacy, and prescribers will be required to educate patients about their right to receive lesser quantities of opiate medications.

Gabapentin, a drug increasing in popularity for its enhancing effect on opiate misuse, will now be reported and monitored by the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives, and Governor Baker has expressed his hope that a final bill will be ready for his signature by Thanksgiving.

I’m hopeful that this legislation, along with all the efforts already underway in state government, healthcare providers, law enforcement, and our local substance abuse coalitions, will turn the tide in the battle against opioid addiction.