Mass. AG to push for federal opioid help during State of the Union visit

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BOSTON >> As Beacon Hill readies for the debate over fighting opioid addiction to heat up again, Attorney General Maura Healey will travel to Washington this week to attend President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address and speak with federal officials about ways they can help support the state's effort to reduce substance abuse.

Healey, as a guest of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, plans to attend Obama's Tuesday night address to the nation before Congress. But before then, Healey will take part in a special screening of a new HBO documentary about the opioid addiction crisis that focuses on Cape Cod.

Neal and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey invited Healey, along with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and White House drug czar Michael Botticelli, to participate in the screening of "Heroin: Cape Cod, USA" at the Capitol Visitor Center on Monday night.

"It's really startling. It's incredibly sad and heartbreaking and just consistent with what so many families in this state have experienced over the last couple years," Healey told the News Service about the film, which she has seen once before. "This has been a region, the Northeast, that has been particularly devastated by substance abuse and this is a great opportunity to talk about our view from the frontline."

The New England Congressional delegation and other leaders in Congress also have been invited to attend. Gov. Charlie Baker invited state lawmakers to a similar screening in Boston before the film's premiere last month.

Healey said she wants to relay the experiences of Massachusetts in the fight against opioid addiction and highlight areas where the federal government can support states. She plans to push for financial resources and policies that support local initiatives to improve access to treatment, promote mental and behavioral health parity for insurance, and improve opioid prescribing practices.

Over the summer, Healey's office struck a deal with Amphastar Pharmaceuticals requiring the company to pay the state $325,000 — roughly the cost of 10,000 doses of Narcan — to help offset the cost of the overdose reversal drug, which had risen from about $22 per dose in March 2014 to as much as $65 for one dose.

"Narcan saves lives and perhaps that's something that can be replicated in other states to put it in the hands of first responders. I want them to know about that, and just the general problems with drug prices," Healey said.

The attorney general also said she plans to use her audience with Murthy, who previously practiced at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and Botticelli to highlight programs like those in Gloucester and Arlington where local officials are stepping up to help get addicts treatment.

"We need help and resources from the federal government," Healey said.

The attorney general's trip comes as the House is preparing this week to debate its version of an opioid abuse prevention bill that would limit prescription sizes and require screenings of overdose patients for signs of greater addiction problems.

Healey said she's hopeful the state Legislature will enact a bill quickly, and has been encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control publishing new opioid prescribing guidelines. She also wants the Food and Drug Administration to review how patients prescribed opioids are being prepared to wean themselves off the drugs.

"We've got to change the culture," Healey said. "There are enough pills out there being prescribed to give a bottle to every man, woman and child."

Healey also plans to make the case for greater federal support to states like Massachusetts to combat the trafficking of heroin and fentanyl.

"As devastating as it's been, I don't think we've seen the zenith of this crisis yet. That is to say many more people in our state will need access to treatment and services," she said.

Neal, in a statement released Sunday night, said he expects Obama to mention the heroin and opioid crisis during his remarks on Tuesday.

"Maura has been a leader in the effort to come up with a comprehensive strategy to tackle the heroin and opioid epidemic that is having a devastating impact on too many families across Massachusetts," Neal said. "I intend to continue my work with her to stop the sad and growing toll these drugs are taking on the young people in our state."

Markey, Neal, Murthy, Botticelli and Healey are all expected to take part in a speaking program before the screening of the HBO documentary at 7 p.m. on Monday night.

While in the capital, Healey said she also plans to meet with senior government officials about criminal justice reform and gun control, issues the president is likely to address in his speech and that have generated considerable debate in Massachusetts.

"Massachusetts has robust gun laws and regulations in place, but we should and must address the illegal trafficking of guns around our state, and we need help and federal resources to combat that," Healey said.

Healey said she's "delighted" to be attending her first State of the Union address, particularly since it will be Obama's last. But don't expect her to necessarily be elbowing for room along the aisle to get a handshake or a program signed by the president.

"I will sit where they tell me and go where they tell me," she laughed.


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