- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Calling drug addiction a public health emergency, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday unveiled the first steps his administration plans to take to combat abuse of heroin and prescription drugs, including the release of county-by-county data on opiate addiction.

Speaking at Hope House, a treatment center in Boston, Baker also announced the formation of a 16-member task force assigned to formulate a statewide strategy for dealing with addiction, treatment and recovery. The group will hold several public meetings and submit recommendations in May.

During his gubernatorial campaign last year, Baker pledged that controlling the state’s heroin overdose epidemic would be a top priority.

The county-level data, he said, will help to highlight “concerning” trends in the prescribing of painkillers, including the number of individuals who receive Schedule II opioid prescriptions from different doctors - or fill those prescriptions at different pharmacies. These trends were found to be most prevalent in Plymouth, Bristol and Barnstable counties.

Officials say people abusing prescription opiates will often try to get multiple prescriptions from different doctors and fill those at a variety of pharmacies to escape detection.

“These medications can provide great relief for many patients, including those tormented by debilitating chronic pain or suffering in their last days of life,” Baker said. “But we need to make sure prescribing is appropriate.”

The governor said insurance companies can also play a role in preventing abuse by “establishing best practices and ensuring compliance.” Baker is a former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, one of the state’s largest insurers.

State health officials say there were 978 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts in 2013, the last year for which complete statistics were available. That was a 46 percent increase over the previous year.

It’s also about three times as many as in 2000, when there were 338 unintentional opioid overdose deaths.

The Opioid Addiction Working Group, as the task force will be known, will be led by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and include law enforcement officials, doctors and experts in addiction prevention, treatment and recovery.

Sudders said there are no quick fixes but the state needs to face the problem head on.

“We need to label it. We need to contain it. We need to address it,” Sudders said.

Attorney General Maura Healy will also serve on the task force.

Healey has said she also plans a major push against heroin and prescription drug abuse, a crisis she says has worsened because anti-pain medication is so potent and illegal drugs like heroin are readily available and cheap.

Dr. Richard Pieters, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, praised Baker and Healey.

He said his group - a statewide association of physicians with more than 24,000 members - has long backed improvements to the state’s prescription monitoring program to curb the practice of “doctor shopping” by those looking for prescription opiates.

“We still need more data, however, to differentiate between overdoses caused by street drugs like heroin and those caused by prescription drug abuse,” Pieters said.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said the statewide and county numbers show just how serious the problem of opiate addiction is.

Markey said he’ll reintroduce legislation meant to shield from lawsuits family members, health professionals and first responders who administer lifesaving opiate overdose prevention treatments like naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan.

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Associated Press writer Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.

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Online: www.mass.gov/opioids

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