State officials differ on pace of efforts to slow opioid epidemic

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BOSTON >> Professionals on the front lines of the opioid abuse epidemic offered advice to lawmakers Monday about how to tackle addiction as frustration began to show among some legislators with the lack of action.

Rep. Randy Hunt, an East Sandwich Republican and members of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, told his fellow committee members he'd like to see a "huge effort" to pull together legislation that could be sent to Gov. Charlie Baker's desk before the Legislature recesses for the year in just over two weeks.

"I hope and pray we end up doing that and not walking away that week without taking a vote," said Hunt, noting that between Nov. 18 and the beginning of January when lawmakers will return from break "we're likely to see more than 200 more people die" from overdoses.

The Legislature is due to recess formal sessions for the year on Nov. 18. The Senate has passed a comprehensive opioid abuse prevention and education bill, and Gov. Charlie Baker's recently filed bill on the same topic is scheduled for a hearing before the House-controlled Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee on Nov. 16.

"We feel like we have to have enough time to find out exactly how programs like yours are working," committee co-chair Rep. Liz Malia told Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello in a response to Hunt.

Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday signed a spending bill that includes $27.8 million for opioid treatment and preventative programs within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Executive Office of Education. House Speaker Robert DeLeo cited those investments and previous efforts to address opioids, including a new law expanding insurance coverage for detox treatment.

"First of all, it would be good if we take a little step back in terms of what we've done so far with the opioid addiction. There seems to be a feeling out there because of the discussions we've had lately with the number of deaths that this is sort of the first time we've taken a look at it, and quite frankly that's not true," DeLeo.

DeLeo said he wasn't sure the House would vote on anything before the winter recess, but pledged action "before obviously the end of the session."

"I'm sure at the end of the day we're going to build upon what we have and probably have some of the strongest opioid laws that there are in the country," he said.

Campanello joined others, including Middlesex District Attorney Marion Ryan, in offering members of the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and the Committee on Public Health testimony on their experiences piloting programs to fight opioid addiction.

Ryan said that despite significant resources being put into programs throughout Middlesex County to equip first responders with Narcan, open a drug court in Lowell, work with real estate agents to clear drugs from medicine cabinets before open houses and more, overdose deaths continue to rise.

"These efforts, despite the amount of money and effort, are not moving the numbers," Ryan said.

Ryan said her office has seen a "significant number" of fatal overdoses that occur in the gap of time between when a patient is discharged from a detoxification facility or the emergency room and when they are able to be placed in a long-term treatment bed.

"We hear people want treatment and can't get it," Ryan said.

In response to a question from Andover Republican Rep. Jim Lyons about whether more resources to fight addiction from the distribution angle would be helpful, Ryan said enforcement of drug trafficking has been successful, and requires collaboration among law enforcement along known drug trafficking routes.

Instead, Ryan said the focus should be on prevention. "Even if we could treat everyone today, we still have a population coming up that's using it," Ryan said.

Campanello, who has been hailed for launching a program in his city five month ago where addicts can seek help finding treatment from police without fear of being arrested, said he appreciated the district attorney's efforts, but disagreed with her assessment of the problem.

"This is not a long grim process," the police chief said. "This is a process that can be fixed. We have to be at the same table. We have to take bold steps." He continued, "I don't think prevention is the place to expend a bunch. You'll have a harder time fighting human nature than guaranteeing early-term treatment."

The Gloucester Police Department's program has helped place 281 people into treatment since June 1, according to Campanello, with a 100 percent success rate of finding a treatment bed within 24 hours.

Furthermore, Campanello said that after witnessing five opioid overdose deaths in Gloucester in the five months preceding the launch of the program, there has been just one death in the last five months and a 23 percent drop in ancillary crimes like shoplifting and breaking and entering, which can often be linked to drug abuse.

"I'm here to tell you there's hope. There's light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Ryan said she was still unsure whether she supports Baker's push to allow doctors to commit a patient for up to 72 hours without a court order, but hopes to learn more this week when the district attorneys plan to discuss the legislation further with the governor's staff.

Though not directly speaking to Baker's legislation, Campanello said "coercing people into treatment" will not work.

"You're not going to keep a jelly doughnut out of my face at 9 o'clock at night if I want one, and you're not going to get an addict into treatment if they don't want help," he said.

The police chief also said he has not experienced the lack of available treatment beds that many involved with the issue often lament, suggesting the persistence of his office in calling their 22 treatment center partners has something to do with his department's perfect placement record within an average of two hours of someone seeking help.

"It's like buying Bruce Springsteen tickets. If you really want to go to the show, you're going to get them eventually," Campanello said.

Representatives from AdCare Hospital, Community HealthLink, Gosnold on Cape Cod, Tapestry Health and AIDS Action Committee, High Point Treatment Center, Hudson Public & Community Health Services and Northampton Public Schools were all scheduled to testify before the committees.

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, the Senate co-chair of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, said she met with Baker to discuss aspects of his opioid abuse prevention bill and left feeling "a little more comfortable" than she had been with the civil commitment section, which would mirror a state law that allows doctors to hold patients with mental health issues that present a threat to themselves or others.

Flanagan said she "shares the frustration" expressed by Hunt about the lack of action, despite the Senate's effort, on the addiction issue so far this session, and said she hoped the House would use the bill she helped write and pass through the Senate as a template.

"There is an actual vehicle that can be utilized to address opioid abuse. It doesn't mean it's over. We can do more and we're not done. We won't be done for a while," Flanagan said.


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