- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts is in the midst of an epidemic of deadly opioid abuse, according to a task force created by Gov. Charlie Baker that said Monday that drug addiction must be considered a medical disease.

The 18-member group released a total of 65 recommendations in the areas of prevention, education, intervention, and treatment and recovery, after holding a series of meetings around the state in recent months.

“Over the past decade, more than 6,600 members of our community have died because of opioids, and behind those deaths are thousands of hospital stays, emergency department visits, and unquantifiable human suffering inflicted upon individuals, families and our communities,” the task force said in an overview of its report.

Baker began a Statehouse news briefing on the report by introducing Janis McGrory of Harwich, who lost her 23-year-old daughter, Liz, to an accidental heroin overdose in 2011 and is featured in one of several public service television announcements that recently began airing.

McGrory said education was the key to preventing addiction and keeping other families “from suffering the horrible pain of losing a child or a sibling.”

Baker said he expected the overall task force plan to require $27.8 million in new state funding to implement, and said that there could never be a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem.

“Opioid addiction is a health care issue,” he said. “It knows no boundaries across race, age, class or demographics.”

The governor cited national statistics showing that four out of five heroin abusers started on painkillers. The task force’s recommendations include strengthening the state’s prescription-monitoring program and requiring education in safe prescribing practices. It also calls for appointing addiction specialists to state boards that oversee doctors, nurses, physician assistants and dentists.

The task force, which was chaired by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and included Attorney General Maura Healey, seeks a change in the state’s civil commitment law that would allow an individual with a substance abuse problem to be taken, involuntarily if necessary, for assessment.

The police chief in the coastal city of Gloucester recently began a program that allows users to turn over their drugs without fear of arrest as long as they agree to enter treatment on the spot. The report did not specifically mention that program, but treatment and recovery was clearly a focus of the study group.

“We are not going to arrest or incarcerate our way out of this,” Healey said.

Calling for an end to the stigma surrounding addiction, Sudders said it must be treated as a chronic medical disease no different than diabetes, heart disease or others illnesses.

The report also calls on the Legislature to make the anti-overdose drug naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, more affordable for first responders through bulk purchasing programs.

Opioid education prevention programs in public schools and during mandatory student athletic meetings. Baker cited evidence that many young athletes become addicted to painkillers after sports injuries and recounted how he told his own son, a college football player, to use pain medication as sparingly as possible after he broke his arm in a game last year.

The report said 100 new treatment beds are needed by July 2016 and calls for an increase in the number of office-based opioid treatment programs in community health centers. Another recommendation calls for partnering with a major pharmacy for a drug take-back program that would allow people to return unused painkiller medication.

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Online:

https://www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/stop-addiction

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