Governor Baker’s signing of legislation this week to combat the opioid epidemic represents an important step in the fight to end this ongoing tragedy. Today, on average four individuals a day in Massachusetts die from a fatal overdose of opiates. Non-fatal overdoses are as much as three to four times higher than that number each day, with most of these overdoses affecting young adults between 18 and 30 years of age. The strain on police and emergency responders is overwhelming for most communities. At Spectrum Health Systems we are experiencing an unprecedented demand for addiction treatment services at all levels — residential, inpatient and outpatient.
In my 45 years working in addiction treatment, I have never seen the demand so great and the stakes so high.
Our Westboro inpatient treatment facility has a waiting list of up to 100 people at any given time. Our two outpatient treatment facilities in Worcester admit up to 48 new people per week between the two operations. Our organization provides addiction treatment services in a number of states throughout the country, many of which are experiencing fatalities similar to Massachusetts.
In none of the other states, however, have we witnessed this type of decisive leadership from elected officials in addressing this serious public health crisis. More has been done to fight opioid addiction in Massachusetts in the last 18 months than has been accomplished in the last ten years.
Our leaders in the Commonwealth should be applauded for recognizing the severity of the issue and working toward immediate, impactful reforms. This legislation, the result of a year-long collaboration among the governor, the attorney general and the state legislature, is only the latest in a series of steps to better fight addiction. Significant laws and changes in practice preceded Monday’s signing by Gov. Baker: Commercial insurers are now required to pay for up to 14 days of inpatient addiction treatment, under a law that took effect in October. The trafficking of fentanyl, a dangerous additive often combined with heroin, has recently been criminalized. And emergency personnel throughout our communities now have better access to Narcan, an opiate antidote, in responding to overdoses. Attorney General Maura T. Healey enabled increased access to this life-saving drug by by negotiating lower prices for it.
This latest law seeks to influence the source of opioid addiction by imposing a seven-day limit on initial opioid prescriptions. This will help prevent unintended dependency by those prescribed the medication, and also prevent unused pills being stolen or diverted for misuse by others. The law also allows individuals to receive a lesser amount of painkillers than the amount listed on a prescription, and provides for additional training in substance abuse prevention for medical professionals. While all of these decisive actions individually will not be the answer to curbing the epidemic and saving lives, collectively they will have a positive impact.
So what’s next?
The reality is that we are still facing an epidemic of historic proportions. Opiate addiction has not become a public health crisis overnight. It has been gaining momentum for years and will take more commitment, funding and creative solutions to truly overcome its grasp on our region. This epidemic is increasingly affecting individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life, and the continued conversations in our communities will lessen the stigma of drug addiction and encourage more in need to seek treatment.
The shifting perception of drug addiction among law enforcement officials will also go a long way in reducing the stigma.
Programs and policies that encourage support and treatment over incarceration will have a lasting impact. It is encouraging to see so many local police departments, including those in Gloucester, Brockton, Lawrence and Weymouth, institute programs that favor treatment over incarceration. There is a growing recognition that treatment is a constructive alternative to arrest. This reflects the reality that addiction is a disease and not a moral shortcoming. In Central Massachusetts, District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. has taken a leadership role in establishing the Central Massachusetts Opiate Task Force made up of public safety, public health, and treatment representatives to address the problem and provide community education. Among the steps that have been taken are increased drug drop-off locations, and also education panels for both communities and schools. Worcester has established the Rockdale Recovery High School for students recovering from addiction, as well as a needle exchange program and clean-up efforts.
Massachusetts has innovative and passionate leadership in state and local governments, law enforcement, healthcare and the non-profit community. Working together, we can make a lasting impact on individuals and families battling addiction. The collaborative efforts to fight this epidemic to date have been impressive, but we still have a long road ahead of us and many more lives to save.
Charles J. Faris is president and CEO of Spectrum Health Systems, a private, non-profit substance abuse and mental health treatment provider, which is headquartered in Worcester and which has inpatient and outpatient facilities throughout Massachusetts and in five other states.