My 4 Point Plan to Confront the Heroin Crisis
Last week, I attended the National Summit on Heroin in Atlanta, where President Obama announced new federal action to combat the epidemic. A week earlier, Massachusetts Governor Baker signed legislation intended to curb opioid use. These actions at the state and national level signal that we are moving from sounding the alarm on heroin addiction to practical steps aimed at turning the tide. Yet more needs to be done, especially in western Massachusetts.
Getting ahead of this epidemic requires addressing it as a major public health crisis. We need a comprehensive, community approach that links law enforcement and the medical community with mental health professionals and accessible treatment. Our communities depend on it.
Trends are still moving in the wrong direction. During the first nine months of 2015, statewide opioid overdose deaths were 13 percent higher than the same period in 2014. And 2014 was 20 percent higher than 2013 and 65 percent over 2012. Between 2002 and 2014, unintentional opioid overdose deaths tripled in Massachusetts — far outpacing even automobile deaths. In Berkshire County, opioid-related deaths increased by nine times in the past ten years, with a spike in the past three. There were 35 opioid-related overdose deaths in Berkshire County in 2015, and unacceptable numbers of deaths continue throughout Franklin, Hampshire and Hampshire Counties.
Despite these troubling trends, only 20 percent of heroin addicts nationwide seek or receive treatment. This is why we need to take every opportunity to bolster prevention and move people towards treatment and recovery. Every time someone survives an overdose or encounters law enforcement and medical personnel, that person should also encounter an opportunity — or a mandate — for healing.
In my work at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition I have been at the center of an effort to define a strategy for preventing and fighting addiction throughout Berkshire County. As your state Senator I would lead with the following four measures.
First: Ensure prescribing practices are safe and appropriate. We know that about 80 percent of current heroin users previously abused prescription drugs; heroin often becomes an affordable alternative. We must strengthen prescription monitoring programs, further educate medical students on the impact of opioids, and accelerate the development of safer, less addictive pain medicine. New Massachusetts legislation takes major strides in this direction, the next step is to make sure local hospitals and medical schools have the resources needed to implement the new rules.
Second: Give front-line safety and health care workers the tools they need. When people overdose we need to keep them alive. Overdose reversal drugs such as Narcan must be available to all first responders and family members affected by addiction.
Third: Drug courts are a proven way to compel non-violent individuals with behavioral health conditions to enter evidence-based treatment, community supervision and case management. It is time to acknowledge that while law enforcement has a critical role in containing access to drugs, we have relied for too long on incarceration to address a public health problem. This approach saves money, reduces crime, and provides an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives. We need more in Western Massachusetts.
Fourth: Broaden implementation of proven strategies. Despite a high rate of hospitalizations, treatment facilities are not always available. Affordable and accessible evidence-based treatment should be available to everyone who needs it. That includes medically assisted treatment, treatment beds beyond short-term detox, and sober living homes that keep people from the triggers of past habits. Berkshire Health Systems is investing in treatment beds for up to 30-day stays and a sober living home for women. These are critical additions.
A foundation of this strategy will be to hold insurance companies responsible for addiction treatment costs, just as they would to treat a physical injury. We need to end insurance practices that delay authorization, require people to “fail first” in outpatient services, or shorten lengths of stay arbitrarily. Insurance reimbursement for non-opioid pain management, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, is also critical. I will push such legislation, because when relapse is possible, delays or shortened treatment can be disastrous.
We have the power to end this crisis. We know addiction is a disease of the brain that we can prevent and treat. Recovery is possible and we see it every day. Ending the crisis requires collaboration between government, healthcare, and others. Peer-recovery coaches, counseling, and faith-based groups like Narcotics Anonymous all have a role to play, as does the effort to ensure that housing, food and meaningful work are available. A unified approach to health and prevention, rather than disease care alone, will brighten the possibilities for potential or current victims.
As President Obama said at the National Summit on Heroin, when you look at the staggering statistics related to lives lost, cost to communities, and most importantly costs to families, this must be at the top of our radar screen. Three people from my childhood are no longer with us because of opiate-related overdoses. As your State Senator I will do everything I can to prevent such tragedies.