BOSTON — More than half of the state's sheriffs on Monday threw their support behind Gov. Charlie Baker's substance abuse prevention legislation, saying that what they see at their correctional facilities proves the state's ongoing opioid epidemic is an issue that "desperately needs attention."
"We are not doing enough to deal with the issues of opiates," Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said. "These go from the tony communities to the poorer communities, to the rural to the urban communities, to white and black and Latino to everything. It hits us all. This is something we need to do now."
After meeting privately with Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, sheriffs from Barnstable, Bristol, Essex, Franklin, Hampshire, Norfolk, Middlesex and Plymouth counties said they wholeheartedly support the governor's bill.
"The problem is so obvious, so many people are dying. Everybody has to do everything they can and we have to start doing it now. We don't need to wait any longer, let's get going on this," Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings said. "To be honest with you, I'm getting tired of talking about it and would like to start doing something about it, and I think this governor's legislation is a first step in getting something done."
The legislation Baker filed last month proposes to limit first-time opioid prescriptions to a 72-hour supply and to give doctors the authority to hospitalize addicts against their will for up to 72 hours if they present a risk to themselves or others.
Both ideas quickly encountered resistance, but the sheriffs who met with Baker on Monday were unanimous in their support for both provisions.
"One thing we find very clearly when people come into the house of correction is (they're) addicted to Percocets, Vicodin and it's a gateway drug they get prescribed to them to get to heroin," Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins said. "There's no question that there has to be limitations on those prescription medications."
On the governor's civil commitment proposal, Koutoujian said, "We don't think it's controversial. It's necessary."
The governor defended his proposal Monday, recounting a conversation he said he had last week in which he explained the intent of the involuntary commitment proposal to an emergency room doctor.
"I think this one is not as complicated as some people might think it is," Baker said. "All we're talking about here is giving emergency room doctors the ability, based on best clinical judgement, to make the same call they currently make with respect to mental health around somebody who is dealing with addiction."
Already, 11 county prosecutors from the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association have signaled their support for the governor's bill, as have other law enforcement officials.
Also Monday, following up on a similar meeting Baker had in September with the leaders of the state's medical schools, Baker's office announced that the medical schools and the Massachusetts Medical Society have developed a set of principles to teach their students about pain management and safe prescribing of opioids.
The 10 "core competencies" — which will be tailored by each medical school to compliment their existing curriculum — will ensure that the 3,000 enrolled medical school students in the state are trained in prescription drug misuse prevention strategies, the governor's office said.
"These educational standards represent an innovative and forward-thinking contribution to the state's multi-faceted strategy to curb the opioid epidemic," Baker said in a statement. "Massachusetts is again setting a new standard by providing our medical students with a strong foundation in treating those with substance use disorders."
Baker's opioid bill is slated to be the only legislation considered before the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse on Monday, Nov. 16 at 10 a.m.
The Senate approved legislation this year targeting substance abuse prevention and education, while the House is taking additional time to review all the options. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said it's unlikely the House will consider the Senate's or governor's bill until sometime in 2016.