BOSTON >> Legislation aimed at encouraging police departments to help heroin addicts find treatment instead of jail — a concept pioneered in Massachusetts by the Gloucester Police Department — has won approval in the U.S. House.
The proposal, supported by Congressman Seth Moulton, is among several bills aimed at combating opioid addiction and sponsored by members of Massachusetts's all-Democratic congressional delegation, that have passed the House this week.
The legislation backed by Moulton would ensure that pre-arrest programs, such as the ANGEL Initiative in Gloucester, are eligible for funding under the federal Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act.
Gloucester's program, launched last year, has gained national attention.
Addicts can come to the police station and be connected to a treatment program if they commit to getting clean. They are assigned a volunteer "angel" — sometimes a recovering addict — who works with them. They can turn in their drugs and drug paraphernalia, no questions asked.
Moulton said the bipartisan legislation will help make sure the Gloucester model can be replicated across the country.
Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello said more than 100 police departments in 24 states have joined the effort.
"Because law enforcement is on the front lines of so many issues, it is our responsibility to intervene when we can, before further harm is done, before arrest even," Campanello said this week.
Several other bills backed by members of the state's delegation also won approval in the House, including two pushed by Rep. Katherine Clark.
One is designed to reduce the amount of unused pain medications fueling the opioid epidemic by allowing prescriptions for opioid medications to be partially filled by pharmacists at the request of patients or doctors.
Another would provide safe care plans for infants and mothers suffering from opioid exposure.
A bill co-sponsored by Rep. Joe Kennedy also passed the House.
The bill would create a task force to update best practices for prescribing opioids. An amendment sponsored by Rep. William Keating would require the task force to consider whether prescriptions for the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, should accompany opioid prescriptions.
Kennedy said he was encouraged by the bipartisan support for many of the bills this week, but was worried about what he said was the reluctance of House Republicans to provide any additional funding for the programs.
"Any serious policies and programs need real resources behind them to be effective," he said.
Those concerns were echoed by Rep. Niki Tsongas, who also faulted Republican leaders for failing to provide new funds.
"While there were positive steps taken this week — many of them led by my colleagues in the Massachusetts delegation — the reality is, we have much more work to do," Tsongas said.
The action in Congress comes as the number of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts continues to climb, fueled by the use of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate that's often mixed with heroin, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
There were 1,379 unintentional, opioid-related deaths in 2015, a 7 percent increase from 2014.
As recently as 2012, there were fewer than 700 opioid-related deaths in the state.
The bills now head to the U.S. Senate.