Gov. Baker’s Opioid Task Force Finds 65 Ways to Battle Statewide Epidemic

Opiates eclipsed car accidents as a killer in Massachusetts in 2005.

Charlie Baker

Photo by Garrett Quinn

Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Monday some of the 65 actionable steps his 18-person opioid working group developed to combat the state’s staggering opioid epidemic. The group’s findings are extensive and spread across the areas of prevention, intervention, treatment, recovery support, and education.

The proposals outlined in the group’s findings are expected to take up to three years to implement and cost approximately $27 million in the 2016 state budget. The proposals are a mix of federal, state, local, and public-private approaches. As a foundation to their report the group found that the state has seen a steady increase in the number of opioid related deaths since 2000, peaking with a spike to 888 in 2013. Opioid related deaths surpassed car accidents as a cause of death in Massachusetts in 2005.

In the area of prevention the group said they want to expand public education on the dangers of opioid abuse while reframing the discussion around addiction to one as a health problem, expand so-called drug “take back” programs to a private pharmacy chain, and promote addiction recovery professionals to medical boards around the state. On the intervention front the group wants to revamp the state’s online prescription monitoring program, work to make naloxone more affordable, and improve the timeliness reporting of overdoses.

In terms of treatment changes the group said programs for recovery to be more easily accessible across the state, that there needs to be an increase in beds at recovery facilities, and a development of pilot program for walk-in patients. The group said that 100 new beds need to be available in July, the bulk of them will go to to areas of high concern like rural parts of Cape Cod and the Berkshires.

“A significant finding of the working group is there are too many barriers to treatment,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudder.

Recovery programs needs to be expanded, the group said, to include things like the certification of drug and alcohol free housing, the acceptance of methadone medication in addiction programs, and the creation of an office in the state’s executive branch solely tasked with overseeing addiction and recovery.

Attorney General Maura Healey, along with Baker, said that the findings of the report make it very clear that the state needs to be open to every possible avenue in fighting addiction.

“We are not going to arrest or incarcerate our way out of this. This is a health crisis and we must treat it and address it as such,” said Healey.

In a follow up Healey said she welcomed the experimental efforts of Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello who is not arresting addicts in his seaside fishing town but helping them receive medical attention if they want it. Healey said it is not very difficult to tell the difference between an addict and a dealer.

“There are certainly any number of users who are dealing to support their habit but you can tell the difference between somebody who is trafficking in high levels of heroin or diverting thousands upon thousands of pills and somebody who has an addiction,” said Healey.

Curbing opioid addiction in the state has been a topic near and dear to Baker  since he took office in January. Baker has frequently noted that he became aware of the severity of the scourge while in the health care industry but mostly on the campaign trail while crisscrossing the state in 2014.

“Let me make one thing perfectly clear: opioid addiction is a health care issue that knows no boundaries across age, race, class or demographics. From the Berkshires to Boston to Cape Cod too many people have heart wrenching stories of loved ones or friends that have battled with addiction and in some cases lost their lives. Opioid abuse is stealing the livelihood of our children, our parents, our siblings, our parents, and our friends one person at a time,” said Baker.

Baker noted that he could not recall the last time he was in a room of more than 20 people where someone was not directly affected by the opioid epidemic. “I didn’t run for governor to fight opioid addiction but simply put: it was everywhere I went,” said Baker.

The announcement of the report’s findings comes on the heels of the launch of a statewide public service campaign aimed at parents that features stories of teens and twenty-somethings that lost their battle with opiate addiction. Baker was not entirely clear when the group would report back or announce their progress but he did say that they would “report regularly” and use metrics to gauge their success.