Photo Gallery: Berkshire County opioid abuse crisis announcement


PITTSFIELD -- Addressing a growing chorus of concern about opioid abuse, Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless on Tuesday sought to raise awareness about local efforts to deal with the problem.

Capeless appeared with representatives from agencies across the county that are developing a strategic plan to combat growing opioid abuse, which has sounded alarm bells from the Statehouse to local courthouses.

"I became concerned there was a great deal of attention and publicity given in particular to overdose and deaths in Berkshire County and across Massachusetts," Capeless said after the press conference. "I wanted people to know instead of being scared about this situation there are positive steps being taken to address and find a solution."

In 2013, there were 16 confirmed deaths due to opioid abuse in Berkshire County -- and there are a half-dozen others cases that are still being examined. Capeless identified five unconfirmed cases so far in 2014.

Abuse of opioids, including legal painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone, can lead to abuse of heroin, which is illegal and cheaper than buying pills. Eleven of the 16 overdose deaths in 2013 were related to heroin use, Capeless said, which is significant compared to years past.

Capeless said heroin is now the "major drug" involved in investigations and substance abuse plays a role in most of the cases the District Attorney's office is investigating.

The strategic plan, to be released in June, is being developed by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Berkshire County Drug Task Force, Berkshire Medical Center, Multicultural BRIDGE, the Railroad Street Youth Project, and other community agencies. The plan didn't receive further elaboration during the press conference.

"When you talk specifically about opioid addiction, it is increasing annually," Capeless said. "It's an epidemic and crisis situation, and that is something we need to impress."

The press conference comes two weeks after Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency and used emergency powers to combat opioid abuse. There has been a 90 percent increase in the number of related overdoses since 2012, according to the governor's office.

Patrick directed the state's police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel to be equipped with a drug, Narcan, that can quickly reverse heroin overdose. The drug had previously been barred from use due to state regulations that were written before the opiate crisis.

Patrick also prohibited the sale of the drug Zohydro, a drug that was approved last year by the federal Food and Drug Administration but has been criticized because of the amount of addictive hydrocodone included. Zogenix, the maker of Zohydro, has sued Patrick and the Department of Public Health.

The governor also directed $20 million in spending to increase treatment and recovery services for the public, state prisons, and county jails, along with other actions.

"All of these directives by the governor are a good start but much more needs to be done," Capeless said. He added Narcan is in the possession of public safety officials, but he said it was too early to provide a comment.

Public health professionals said there are many resources, but more needs to be done to reduce the stigma associated with opioid abuse. They highlighted resources that include Berkshire Medical Center's McGee Recovery Center, Brien Center, and family support groups, Strength in Numbers, in Great Barrington and Learn to Cope in Holyoke. There is also Al-Anon for family members and Narcotics Anonymous for those with an opiate addiction.

Jennifer Michaels, an attending psychiatrist at BMC and medical director at the Brien Center, praised the collaborative efforts undertaken in the county. But she said there are treatment gaps.

Michaels said she met a patient this week who had been using heroin for six years, and her insurance would only cover six days at the McGee Center.

"Her insurance told her to leave, they told her she was done," said Michaels, who said patients should have access to more in-patient care.

Yevin Roh, program director of the drop-in center at the Railroad Street Youth Project, interviewed young adults about the problem. He said in most cases heroin use didn't become prevalent until their early 20s or late teens.

"They felt invisible, and they felt unheard," Roh said.

He said to get to the bottom of the problem youth workers, teachers, law enforcement all need to do a better job of listening.

"We can actively create relationships with youths and in their lives where we listen without judgment," Roh said. "By listening deliberately, we can uncover the roots of this opioid and heroin problem and take a true public health approach toward prevention where all members are empowered."

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com
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On Twitter: @jsakata