Massachusetts lawmakers approve bill targeting opioid abuse


BOSTON >> The Massachusetts House and Senate have given final approval to a wide-ranging effort to address the state's deadly opioid addiction crisis.

The Senate on Thursday joined the House in unanimously approving the bill that would limit initial painkiller prescriptions to a seven-day supply and set an evaluation requirement within 24 hours for overdose victims seeking help at hospital emergency rooms. It would also allow patients to fill only part of their painkiller prescriptions at a time and require schools to verbally screen students for potential drug abuse.

The bill is now on the desk of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who is expected to sign it when he returns from a vacation.

Why has there been such attention given to opioid abuse?

Massachusetts has been rocked in recent years by a spike in the number of opioid-related overdose deaths. Between 2012 and 2014, the number of confirmed unintentional opioid overdose deaths jumped 65 percent, to a total of nearly 1,100 in 2014. The final number will likely be even higher. The estimated rate of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 residents for 2014 is also the highest ever for unintentional opioid overdoses and represents a 228 percent increase from the rate of 5.3 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2000. Preliminary data for January 2015 through September 2015 suggest a higher number of overdose deaths than during the same period in 2014.

Why does the bill focus on prescription painkillers?

The bill would limit initial opiate painkiller prescriptions to a seven-day supply and let patients fill only part of their painkiller prescriptions at a time and fill the rest if needed. The bill would also require doctors to check the state's Prescription Monitoring Program each time they prescribe an opioid to make sure patients are not seeking multiple prescriptions from doctors. The bill's supporters say the restrictions are needed because so many people initially become addicted to opiates through prescription painkillers — including finding leftover pills in medicine cabinets — before moving on to drugs like heroin.

Does it do anything to help students avoid getting hooked?

The bill requires schools to verbally screen pupils for substance use disorders at two grade levels to be set by the state education department in consultation with state health officials. Parents will be notified of the screenings at the start of the school year. A parent would be able to opt their child out of the screening process. Any statements made by the student during the screening process would be considered confidential.

What else does it do?

The bill contains other strategies to combat opioid abuse including setting a goal that overdose victims who seek help at hospital emergency rooms undergo an evaluation within 24 hours before being discharged. The bill is also intended to help provide doctors and other health professionals with information on ways they can change their prescribing habits, including information on alternative, non-opioid, pain management options.

Why not just target drug dealers?

Lawmakers have also taken steps to toughen drug laws by passing a bill that was later signed into law by Baker. The new law creates the crime of trafficking in fentanyl for amounts greater than 10 grams with punishment of up to 20 years in state prison. Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey said the law will help police target traffickers who mix fentanyl with heroin, often without the knowledge of the buyer. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate estimated to be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.


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