State Senate hearing in North Adams gathers input on heroin epidemic

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NORTH ADAMS -- To combat the growing heroin epidemic across the state, insurance companies must improve coverage for addicts in recovery.

That was among the suggestions during a hearing in North Adams City Hall on Tuesday as part of a state legislative push to find ways to deal with drug addiction.

"A five-day, court-ordered stay in a detox facility for an addict is not enough," said North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright. "Weekly therapy is not enough. Jail is not enough."

Alcombright said part of the reason mental illness and substance abuse are not covered like other diseases is because of the stigma surrounding them. He advocated for long-term, dual diagnosis treatment of addiction and underlying mental health issues -- covered by insurers.

"We are working very hard [against] an epidemic problem," he said. "This is a very, very important issue."

Tuesday’s hearing by the state Senate’s Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options provided an opportunity for Berkshire health care providers, activists and officials to weigh in on how the Legislature can target the problem of heroin addiction.

The hearing was the sixth of eight being held across the Commonwealth this spring to gather input and help crafting legislation that will eventually be brought to debate on Beacon Hill. State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, the chairwoman of the committee, said she’d like the discussion to turn into something "concrete."

"We need to start talking about this as a health care crisis," said Flanagan, D-Leominster.

Advocates from across the county spoke about the need to bolster funding for treatment in the Berkshires, and asked that the region not be forgotten. The event also highlighted the efforts of a number of county organizations to combat drug abuse, including the Brien Center, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and others.

Several speakers, including representatives from the Brien Center, said most patients’ insurance only covers them for about five days of treatment -- not long enough to allow drugs to fully exit the system.

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Flanagan said she would consider the idea of requiring insurers to reimburse longer treatment periods for addicts in recovery.

Another oft-mentioned issue in Berkshire County addiction treatment was the lack of available beds and the difficulty of utilizing public transportation. There are only 24 beds dedicated to mental health and addiction treatment in Berkshire County, according to a Brien Center representative.

The nearest available transitional care -- between detox and long-term recovery -- is in Holyoke, proving to be a transportation nightmare for many. With North Adams Regional Hospital closed, and Berkshire Medical Center still working to open an emergency department at the former NARH site, addicts in North County need to travel to Pittsfield for emergency care.

Several organizations’ representatives also spoke on the need for tighter regulations on prescription medications, which they say is often the gateway to heroin abuse.

Both Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless and Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director of adult outpatient services for the Brien Center advocated for legislation that would improve the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program to provide real-time data on prescriptions.

"This is not a crisis that has arisen overnight," Capeless wrote in prepared remarks read by Second Assistant District Attorney Robert Kinzer III.

The remarks stated that steps must be taken to ensure prescriptions are monitored. Providing data to a Prescription Monitoring Program should be mandatory, Capeless said, and the programs must be linked to neighboring states such as New York and Vermont.

Insurance companies also should be proactive in regulating pain medication, according to Capeless. After an effort by one company to require doctors explain the need for the medication, Capeless wrote, oxycontin prescriptions decreased by 50 percent in 18 months across the commonwealth.

Michaels echoed those sentiments, adding that additional staff, other than the physicians themselves, should be legally allowed to access the information to save time.

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