- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Prompted by a deadly wave of opioid addiction in the state, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill that would encourage doctors to consider new approaches for treating pain and would increase screening of public school students for potential substance abuse.

The Senate vote came amid a flurry of action around the crisis that has been called an epidemic and a public health emergency in Massachusetts and elsewhere. Massachusetts officials reported more than an estimated 1,200 deaths from heroin and other opioid-related overdoses last year.

The legislation, which now moves to the House, focuses heavily on limiting abuse of powerful painkillers that often pave the way toward heroin addiction, according to law enforcement.

Doctors and pharmacists would be encouraged to prescribe federally-approved, non-opioid drug products that have been shown effective in managing pain; physicians would also be required to explain - in writing - the decisions they make to prescribe certain “high-risk” medications.

Patients, especially recovering addicts, could place a note in their medical records declaring they do not want opiates prescribed under any circumstances. Pharmacists, at a patient’s request, could fill part but not all of a doctor’s prescription.

The proposals have the support of Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been critical of what he calls the overprescribing of powerful painkillers.

“This idea that you write prescriptions for 30 or 60 days or give someone 50, 60, 70, 80 Percocets for something that is an acute incident just doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said Baker.

The bill calls for schools to verbally screen public school students to help determine if they are at risk of substance abuse. Senate leaders have stressed that the proposal does not require drug testing and that parents and students themselves could opt not to undergo the screening.

“We are starting a conversation that may change the course of their lives,” said Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominister, adding that students were already being screened for substance abuse in a handful of school districts and that some have been successfully referred for follow-up counseling and treatment.

The bill originally called for screening students in the seventh and 10th grades, but was amended to allow the state Department of Public Health to determine the appropriate ages. The screenings would begin in the 2016-2017 school year.

A spending bill passed by the House on Wednesday included $1.2 million to help fund the program, lawmakers said.

Speaker Robert DeLeo said prior to the Senate vote that he expected the House to act shortly on a version of the opioid bill and Baker is expected to file additional legislation of his own.

DeLeo additionally promised action on a measure endorsed by Attorney General Maura Healey that would make trafficking in Fentanyl a crime punishable with a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Authorities say the narcotic is often added to heroin.

Also Thursday, a state law took effect that requires health insurers, without pre-approval, to provide coverage for all “medically necessary” inpatient addiction treatment and counseling for at least 14 consecutive days. The law was approved by lawmakers last year and signed by then-Gov. Deval Patrick.

At an unrelated campaign event in Boston on Thursday, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the state Senate for taking action to address opioid abuse.

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