An emotional Gov. Charlie Baker broke down in tears as he signed landmark opioid legislation into law back in March, “the most comprehensive measure in the country to combat opioid addiction.”
“May today’s bill passage signal to you that the Commonwealth is listening and we will keep fighting for all of you,” Baker said. Then why, just nine months later, does a slew of budget cuts take aim at the substance abuse treatment programs crucial to that fight?
The full list of the Baker administration’s $98 million in fiscal year 2017 9C line-item cuts reveals $1.929 million slashed from the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS), affecting treatment programs across the state. These wide-ranging cuts include:
In January, Baker announced $700,000 in grants for first responders in 31 communities to purchase the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan, calling it an “immediate, life-saving resource.” But among Baker’s cuts was $25,000 earmarked for the purchase of Narcan for Wakefield, which did not receive one of these grants. Six confirmed overdose deaths were confirmed in Wakefield last year, according to state data.
Baker had vetoed many of these “earmarks” this summer, as he trimmed $265 million from the budget. But the Legislature restored $231 million in spending via overrides.
Despite the BSAS earmark cuts, overall substance use disorder spending increased by $15.5 million over the previous fiscal year, including $5 million for the Substance Abuse Trust Fund supporting the Governor’s Working Group on Opioid Addiction, and $1.7 million for law enforcement to combat drug trafficking in gateway cities.
“The Baker-Polito Administration was pleased to sign a balanced budget for Fiscal Year 2017 that further increased investments in education, local aid, and efforts to fight the opioid-heroin epidemic, without raising taxes,” said state Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore in a statement.
“Today, we are acting to put the budget back in balance for the hardworking people of Massachusetts as provided under 9C authority in response to softening revenues, unavoidable spending deficiencies, and the Legislature’s decision to restore spending above the administration’s signed balanced budget.”
There were 1,005 confirmed opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts through the first nine months of 2016, according to Department of Public Health data. While heroin deaths have declined, deaths involving powerful synthetic opiates like fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, have increased.
The cuts have drawn criticism from Beacon Hill lawmakers, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who called the cuts “premature.”
“I am shocked by Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to cut $98 million from the state budget just before the holidays,” state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, in a statement Wednesday. “Governor Baker’s actions to de-fund these services were premature and short-sighted, especially because House and Senate leaders urged caution on budget cuts until the state’s revenue picture became more clear.”
Baker has made the opioid crisis a focus of his first term. “I don’t want to be the governor who ends up presiding over 2,500 opioid deaths, or 3,000 in one year…or 3,500. Especially when there are things that can be done to deal with this,” he said at the New England Council Opioid Abuse Forum in 2015. A month later, he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito hosted a screening of HBO’s documentary film, Heroin: Cape Cod, USA, which chronicled the struggles of eight young addicts on Cape Cod.
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