Opioid overdose deaths fell by 4 percent last year in Massachusetts, but a new drive involving Berkshire County's two cities seeks to improve on that tenfold.

And in just three years.

Health officials in Pittsfield and North Adams are joining a statewide study that will probe the ability of a specific kind of medical intervention, along with other steps, to help dramatically more people pull away from addiction.

The goal: Cut opioid deaths by 40 percent.

Even as the study tests the science of how to save lives, it is expected to bring immediate results for patients who take part in Berkshire County and elsewhere, including people who might not have found access to care.

The project, fueled by an $89 million federal grant, will be led over the next four years by researchers at Boston Medical Center with dozens of grassroots partners in 16 state communities.

The study might provide a national model for substance abuse treatment. If so, it will be because the project upholds the merit of an approach pioneered by Boston Medical Center. The study will tap a treatment program at the Boston hospital, dubbed the "Massachusetts model," in which nurses serve as care managers for people with substance abuse disorders, in which they take a wide look at issues in patients' lives that contribute to substance abuse.

The hospital claims that it was able, in the past five years, to help 60 percent of patients receiving what's known as "office-based addiction treatment" to end use of substances.

Locally, health care agencies that participate will be able to hire staff to implement the program. The grant provides for one new full-time nurse care manager and a half-time administrator for each partner agency.

Two approaches

Half of the participating communities will provide medication-assisted treatment, such as use of buprenorphine. That medication helps people curtail use of opiates, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one of the sponsors of the new HEALing Communities Study.

The other participating communities will do that, but add other aspects of treatment overseen by nursing care managers designed to treat the "whole patient."

In all, three federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse, will provide $350 million for work in four states beset by opioid overdose deaths. The other states are Kentucky, Ohio and New York.

"It's very exciting to be included," said Jennifer Kimball, a principal planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. She said the funding agencies visited the region to assess the readiness of local study partners to participate.

"They need to have people on the ground in communities doing this work," she said.

Kimball's agency has been working to combat substance abuse through the Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative.

Even after the study wraps up in four years, after a first year spent putting the system into place, help will continue to be available to Berkshire County.

"That was very heartening to hear," Kimball said.

The mayors of North Adams and Pittsfield said they are pleased to get the help.

In statements provided by Boston Medical Center, the mayors said the venture will aid aggrieved patients and families.

"We must continue to give this issue the attention it needs to help our loved ones who are battling addiction," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.

North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard said the study will bulk up help on the problem locally, saying the grant "will bring new allies and new resources to our efforts to address the opioid epidemic."

Local partners will include the Brien Center in Pittsfield and the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition.

Christine Macbeth, president and CEO of the Brien Center, stressed in a statement that opioid addiction is treatable. "This grant has the potential of allowing us to enhance our continuum of addiction treatment programs and expand our efforts to reach people who need our help, but might otherwise not find our services."

Amber Besaw, the coalition's executive director, said she believes the study will spur creative approaches to the opioid epidemic, calling such action "critical for the health and wellness of everyone in all our communities."

The `whole patient'

In a statement on its website, Boston Medical Center says the concept for the intervention, in place since 2003, is simple: "Evaluate patients with substance abuse disorders and provide them with a managed-care treatment plan that takes into account their social and medical needs."

The care staff helps patients manage through drug withdrawal, as well as counseling them on "other issues in their life, like jobs, housing, domestic abuse, or other personal crises."

A spokesman for Boston Medical Center could not be reached Thursday for comment.

The study will allow local communities to help select the other approaches to be blended with medication-assisted treatment. Options include improved access to medication-assisted treatment for substance abuse during hospitalizations or incarceration. Other steps will include education about opioid abuse in settings like schools and doctors' offices.

Other state communities that will take part include Lowell, Lawrence, Brockton, Gloucester, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Plymouth, Salem, Springfield and Weymouth.

In 2018, 82 fewer people succumbed to opioid overdoses in Massachusetts compared with 2017, the state announced in February. County-level numbers are not yet available for 2018.

Though the number of deaths fell last year, the number of 911 calls related to overdose climbed through 2018.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.