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Legislature hears testimony on bills, including Pignatelli proposal, seeking to tackle opioid epidemic

William “Smitty” Pignatelli at podium (copy)

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, has promoted legislation concerning acupuncture and other nonopioid treatments for pain. But, he said those efforts should be coupled with his push to require all first responders to carry naloxone, an opioid antagonist often credited with saving lives.

As Massachusetts continues to grapple with the effects of the national opioid crisis, committees in the Legislature last week heard testimony for bills aiming to combat substance use disorder and its negative consequences.

The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the opioid epidemic in Berkshire County and across the state. The county saw a 44 percent increase in fatal overdoses, from 39 in 2019 to a record-high 56 last year, and the state saw a 5 percent increase in deaths, the first increase in three years.

As lawmakers promote nonopioid alternatives to pain treatment, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he would like to see support for alternative treatments combined with his push to equip all first responders with naloxone, an opioid antagonist that can reverse an overdose.

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Pignatelli long has pushed for legislation concerning acupuncture and other nonopioid treatments. A bill from Pignatelli and state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, would require insurance policies to “provide benefits for acupuncture and oriental medicine based diagnosis and treatment in the areas of pain management, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse treatment, and nausea.”

On Thursday, the Joint Committee on Public Health heard testimony for a bill that would develop an educational pamphlet about opioid alternatives. Supporters say the legislation could give patients a more thorough explanation of treatment options, including acupuncture and exercise therapy.

“When we decrease the amount of opioids in circulation, then we decrease the amount of addiction on the other end,” said Amy Mager, a licensed acupuncturist who spoke at the hearing.

Fatal opioid overdoses soar to record high in Berkshires

The bill would require the state Department of Public Health to publish an educational pamphlet on its website with examples of nonopioid medicinal drugs and nonpharmacological therapies. It also would require health practitioners to inform patients about the details of other treatment options.

“This critical health care info will allow patients and/or their representatives to make informed choices about treatment options, medications and therapies,” said state Rep. James Arciero, D-Westford, who sponsored the bill.

The digital pamphlet also would include detailed information about the advantages and disadvantages of various opioid alternatives.

Pignatelli said the pamphlet could be a good place to start — “Anything that’s educational and informational is very important,” he said — “but we need to do follow-up.”

On Oct. 25, the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery heard testimony for a bill sponsored by Pignatelli and state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem. Known as the Helping Overdosing Persons in Emergencies (HOPE) act, the legislation would require first responders to carry naloxone.

While many first responders in Berkshire County carry naloxone, some larger police departments, including those in Pittsfield, Lee and Lenox, do not and must wait for someone else to arrive at the scene with the drug, which widely is credited with saving lives.

Under the legislation, first responders must complete training on administering the treatment within one year of employment. Legally, the risk of liability for a law enforcement officer administering an opioid antagonist remains low, according to the National Training and Technical Assistance Center.

While Pignatelli said the pandemic influenced a significant setback in progress against the opioid crisis in Berkshire County, and he said the pandemic has increased the urgency of legislative solutions.

“We’re really seeing a downward trend, and I think COVID is really having an impact,” Pignatelli said.

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