An emotional Gov. Baker signs bill aimed at fighting opioid addiction

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BOSTON — An emotional Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday signed what he called the most comprehensive law in the nation to combat an opioid addiction scourge, including a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers.

The Republican governor struggled to maintain his composure while recalling families he had met — some standing behind him at the Statehouse ceremony — who had lost loved ones to a "deadly, merciless epidemic" and others who were desperately seeking help for a family member.

In recent years, the opiate-abuse epidemic has claimed thousands of lives in Massachusetts. The law, which was given final approval by the Legislature last week, establishes new rules and procedures for the prescribing of opiate painkillers. Supporters of the limits say most heroin addicts first become hooked on painkillers that were either prescribed or obtained illegally.

"This is the first law in the nation to limit an opioid prescription and I hope other states consider pursuing something similar," Baker said.

Janis McGrory, of Harwich, said her daughter Liz's addiction started with pills and quickly spiraled out of control.

"Her life was years of numerous detoxes, programs, hospitals, overdoses, court appearances, jail stays and even homelessness," said McGrory. Her daughter, a high school honor student, died in 2011 of a heroin overdose at age 23.

The new law requires school districts to establish substance abuse prevention policies and verbally screen students to assess their risk of addiction. It also creates new training programs for health care providers and law enforcement.

The law took effect immediately upon Baker's signature, but some provisions could take weeks or even months to fully implement.

At one point, Baker became too emotional to speak. The silence was filled by applause from a bipartisan gathering that included Democratic legislative leaders, Attorney General Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

"If this bill helps one family and one addict, it's done its job," said Walsh, who recovered from alcoholism early in his adult life.

Between 2012 and 2014, the number of confirmed unintentional opioid overdose deaths jumped 65 percent, to an estimated total of nearly 1,100 in 2014.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said funerals for overdose victims had become a near weekly occurrence in his district, with the victims including kids he once coached in baseball.

Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said Monday that the bill is one she and others on the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and one that is already beginning to address an emergency situation in the state.

"This is not the first time the Legislature has tackled this, and there will be more," she said. "We will take it up again."

A bill provision for which funding previously was approved, she said, will create additional facility beds for in-patient addiction treatment. "I think we should hear something in Berkshire County in short order," Farley-Bouvier said, adding that the area "is in line to get more beds."

She cited as significant the provision calling for a the seven-day limit on first time opioid prescriptions and a requirement for physicians to check a state database on prescriptions before writing one.

The state has funded some "very important upgrades" to the online prescription database, she said, which has allowed most physicians to "feel more comfortable" with the new restrictions.

Law enforcement and other officials have been critical of what they saw as too-easy access to opioid medications, which for some led to dependance an sometimes to addition to heroin or other illegal drugs.

Farley-Bouvier also noted a new option for people with unused pain medications in that they will be able to turn those in at pharmacies, with the collection system to be paid for by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, praised passage of the legislation last week, saying in part, "I am excited to cast my vote for this concrete set of initiatives that will make a measurable impact in fighting the addiction epidemic in the Commonwealth."

Passage of the law continued a philosophical shift toward treating addiction not as a crime but a disease, which "grows out of hopelessness, out of pain, out of a feeling that there is no hope and no reason to look at the brighter side of life," said Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg.

The measure requires that people treated for overdoses in hospital emergency rooms undergo an evaluation within 24 hours and be given treatment options before discharged. Chris Herren, a former Massachusetts high school basketball star and one-time NBA player whose career was derailed by drug addiction, called the 24-hour provision a good first step, but he and Baker had pushed lawmakers for a longer, 72-hour emergency room hold.

"I've been there four times and I know the last thing on my mind is to figure out where I am going for treatment," said Herren, who now heads a nonprofit organization that helps others access treatment.

Staff writer Jim Therrien contributed to this report.


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