Clarence Fanto: On stepping to plate, Legislature didn't always score this session

Lawmakers sent to Gov. Charlie Baker a bill expanding access to addiction treatment centers and availability of the overdose-reversal medication naloxone (Narcan) at pharmacies without a prescription.

Lately, the numbers of Bay State opioid-related deaths have begun to decline from their peak in 2016, and this is encouraging news. (Eagle, Feb. 14). However, the numbers do not take into account the personal tragedy to families, loved ones, friends and a victim's community that each individual death represents.

The slowly declining figures represent the fruits of a sustained public effort at intervention, addiction treatment, community outreach and myriad other initiatives to rid society of this devastating scourge. Regardless of the good news contained in the figures, the Berkshires remain caught in the grip of addiction, and the battle has been made much more difficult by the availability of fentanyl, a cheaply produced synthetic opioid that is incredibly powerful and addictive.

Gov, Charlie Baker's recently filed Fiscal Year 2020 budget includes $266 million to fund opioid treatment and related services, as well as $5 million to directly combat the spread of fentanyl. These are significant sums, although those in the addiction treatment and prevention community might argue that even they are insufficient. What is important is that the state and its residents should view such spending as one component of a multi-pronged effort to eliminate the psychological and emotional causes of addiction, including providing more employment opportunities, youth after-school programs, anti-drug education and outreach by nonprofit and faith-based organizations.

In an additional and much-needed move, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, has introduced a bill in the State House, matched by one in the Senate, that would supply all Massachusetts police, firefighters and other first responders with the opioid overdose antidote Narcan and train them in its use. If passed, the Hope Act will eliminate inconsistencies in how such overdoses are handled between local jurisdictions and potentially save lives.

Addiction's deathly grip on the populace can best be loosened at the ground level. While federal and state funding is essential, it is at organizations like the Brien Center where the real work of saving and restoring lives gets done. In that vein, a two-year grant by the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Addiction Services of $600,000 to the Brien Center for outreach to the homeless, jail inmates transitioning back to society and overdose patients who appear at emergency rooms puts the money where it is most needed. Such infusions of needed cash notwithstanding, the problem — while it may have peaked — remains very real, and any relaxation of efforts to fight it could result in a resurgence. Rather than sit back with a sigh of relief, it's time to redouble our efforts to deliver the ultimate coup de grace to this abiding curse.