Opioid task force backs Healey’s focus on painkiller addiction

01.06.2015


Originally posted on the Daily Hampshire Gazette's website

By DAVID RAINVILLE

Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD — A local group formed to fight the state’s heroin and prescription painkiller problem is praising Attorney General-elect Maura Healey’s focus on the issue.

“Those of us who watch this crisis harm families every day applaud her willingness to place this epidemic at the center of her agenda,” said Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, a leader of the county’s Opioid Task Force.

Healey on Monday announced a multipronged plan to fight the high rate of painkiller addiction in the state.

“I’m really encouraged by (Healey’s) and (Gov.-elect) Charlie Baker’s comments about opioid addiction being a priority,” said Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan. “I’m hoping it means bigger support for programs like ours at the local level.”

Donelan is a founder and co-chair of the Opioid Task Force, a title he shares with Sullivan and Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan.

“I’m impressed that she’s made this problem her almost-No. 1 priority, before she’s even taken office,” Merrigan said.

Formed in 2013, the task force has worked to bring together the courts, law enforcement, treatment services, medical and mental health professionals, social services, schools and other aspects of the community locally to take on the addiction problem plaguing the country.

While campaigning, Healey met with the task force, and told members she would “work with the courts to grow and replicate this type of model.”

“I think she was impressed with what we’re doing,” Merrigan said. “It seemed like she learned a lot from us — I could tell we weren’t ‘reinventing the wheel’ for her, and gave her some new information.”

Part of Healey’s plan is to start an opioid task force within the attorney general’s office.

“I think we showed her what a task force can do when it has the right players,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said he expects Healey to work with the Franklin County task force. With Sullivan appointed to Healey’s transition team, the task force will have a voice there, as well.

“We must lead the nation in confronting this public health crisis,” Healey said Monday. “I will build on our state’s many ongoing efforts and bring every resource I have to the table.”

Authorities have reported a sharp spike in overdoses across the state in recent months, including 58 heroin or opiate-related deaths in a roughly two-week period in December.

Healey said the crisis has worsened because anti-pain medication is so potent and illegal drugs like heroin are readily available. She said she’s spoken to people who’ve suffered an injury, were prescribed powerful pain medication, and later became addicted to heroin. Today’s heroin, which sells for as little as $5 a bag, also is stronger, more lethal and cheaper than it’s ever been, she said.

Healey’s plans appear aimed at tackling the addiction problem from the bottom up, lessening demand for drugs by treating current addicts and preventing others from becoming dependent, and reining in “pill mills” and the over-prescribing of painkillers.

Plans include better controls on prescription painkillers, including an expansion of a state prescription monitoring program, a “pharmacy lock-in” to restrict suspected “doctor shoppers” to a single pharmacy for control and to monitor misuse, and public outreach programs to educate people on the dangers of prescription painkillers and heroin.

“It seems like a coordinated effort to hit this problem from several angles, like we’ve been trying to do,” Donelan said.

The sheriff said enhanced prescription monitoring in particular, which allows doctors and pharmacists to view a patient’s recent prescription history, could be a useful tool in curbing addiction.

“That really hits to the heart of prescription drug abuse,” Donelan said. “If we can get our arms around the prescriptions, that’s where a lot of (addictions) start.”

Many of today’s heroin addicts start out by taking painkillers legitimately but become addicted, abuse the prescriptions and eventually switch to heroin when their prescription runs out or they can no longer afford the high street price of the pills.

Donelan said that makes heroin addiction different from other substance dependencies because there is no pill that leads to alcoholism or a cocaine habit.

It’s also much more deadly than other illegal drugs, the sheriff said.

“Heroin is so likely to kill its users, as opposed to marijuana, cocaine or alcohol,” Donelan said. “It’s so important to educate people and get information out there because people are dying from this.”

Merrigan said he thinks the pharmacy lock-in will help keep people from filling painkiller prescriptions from multiple doctors.

Dr. Ruth Potee, a physician who has worked with the task force and educated her fellow prescribers on the opioid problem, was particularly pleased to hear that Healey plans to expand the prescription monitoring program.

“I think she recognizes that the (prescription monitoring program) needs to be better funded and easier to use, especially across state lines,” Potee said. “I hope more prescribers will use it.”

Public education programs on opiates and prescription drugs are another priority. Healey pledged to use resources from the attorney general’s office to pay for education efforts and to help reduce teen access to prescription medicine. Healey also wants safe disposal boxes for prescription drugs in communities across the state.

“These are concrete and definitive steps we can take — now — that will make a difference in addressing this crisis,” Healey said.

Narcan costs

Healey also plans to look into the increased price of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.

“I’m especially pleased she is going to focus on the tripling of the cost of nasal Narcan,” Potee said. “I can find no reason why it’s increased in price.”

Potee said she hopes Healey will also advocate for more drug treatment facilities.

Healey said she will also work with police and prosecutors to increase enforcement of drug laws and target trafficking “hot spots.”

Donelan hopes increased cooperation with law enforcement agencies in nearby states will also help.

“We track (heroin) from New York City to Hartford, Conn., to Vermont,” Donelan said. “Connecting with other states and sharing intelligence (on drug cases) could be a help with enforcement.”

Interstate 91 is a major corridor in that interstate drug trade, and some in law enforcement have dubbed it the “heroin highway” for all the drug busts that result from routine traffic stops on the road.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

“I’m impressed that she’s made this problem her almost-No. 1 priority, before she’s even taken office,” Merrigan said.

Formed in 2013, the task force has worked to bring together the courts, law enforcement, treatment services, medical and mental health professionals, social services, schools and other aspects of the community locally to take on the addiction problem plaguing the country.

While campaigning, Healey met with the task force, and told members she would “work with the courts to grow and replicate this type of model.”

“I think she was impressed with what we’re doing,” Merrigan said. “It seemed like she learned a lot from us — I could tell we weren’t ‘reinventing the wheel’ for her, and gave her some new information.”

Part of Healey’s plan is to start an opioid task force within the attorney general’s office.

“I think we showed her what a task force can do when it has the right players,” Merrigan said.

Merrigan said he expects Healey to work with the Franklin County task force. With Sullivan appointed to Healey’s transition team, the task force will have a voice there, as well.

“We must lead the nation in confronting this public health crisis,” Healey said Monday. “I will build on our state’s many ongoing efforts and bring every resource I have to the table.”

Authorities have reported a sharp spike in overdoses across the state in recent months, including 58 heroin or opiate-related deaths in a roughly two-week period in December.

Healey said the crisis has worsened because anti-pain medication is so potent and illegal drugs like heroin are readily available. She said she’s spoken to people who’ve suffered an injury, were prescribed powerful pain medication, and later became addicted to heroin. Today’s heroin, which sells for as little as $5 a bag, also is stronger, more lethal and cheaper than it’s ever been, she said.

Healey’s plans appear aimed at tackling the addiction problem from the bottom up, lessening demand for drugs by treating current addicts and preventing others from becoming dependent, and reining in “pill mills” and the over-prescribing of painkillers.

Plans include better controls on prescription painkillers, including an expansion of a state prescription monitoring program, a “pharmacy lock-in” to restrict suspected “doctor shoppers” to a single pharmacy for control and to monitor misuse, and public outreach programs to educate people on the dangers of prescription painkillers and heroin.

“It seems like a coordinated effort to hit this problem from several angles, like we’ve been trying to do,” Donelan said.

The sheriff said enhanced prescription monitoring in particular, which allows doctors and pharmacists to view a patient’s recent prescription history, could be a useful tool in curbing addiction.

“That really hits to the heart of prescription drug abuse,” Donelan said. “If we can get our arms around the prescriptions, that’s where a lot of (addictions) start.”

Many of today’s heroin addicts start out by taking painkillers legitimately but become addicted, abuse the prescriptions and eventually switch to heroin when their prescription runs out or they can no longer afford the high street price of the pills.

Donelan said that makes heroin addiction different from other substance dependencies because there is no pill that leads to alcoholism or a cocaine habit.

It’s also much more deadly than other illegal drugs, the sheriff said.

“Heroin is so likely to kill its users, as opposed to marijuana, cocaine or alcohol,” Donelan said. “It’s so important to educate people and get information out there because people are dying from this.”

Merrigan said he thinks the pharmacy lock-in will help keep people from filling painkiller prescriptions from multiple doctors.

Dr. Ruth Potee, a physician who has worked with the task force and educated her fellow prescribers on the opioid problem, was particularly pleased to hear that Healey plans to expand the prescription monitoring program.

“I think she recognizes that the (prescription monitoring program) needs to be better funded and easier to use, especially across state lines,” Potee said. “I hope more prescribers will use it.”

Public education programs on opiates and prescription drugs are another priority. Healey pledged to use resources from the attorney general’s office to pay for education efforts and to help reduce teen access to prescription medicine. Healey also wants safe disposal boxes for prescription drugs in communities across the state.

“These are concrete and definitive steps we can take — now — that will make a difference in addressing this crisis,” Healey said.

Narcan costs

Healey also plans to look into the increased price of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan.

“I’m especially pleased she is going to focus on the tripling of the cost of nasal Narcan,” Potee said. “I can find no reason why it’s increased in price.”

Potee said she hopes Healey will also advocate for more drug treatment facilities.

Healey said she will also work with police and prosecutors to increase enforcement of drug laws and target trafficking “hot spots.”

Donelan hopes increased cooperation with law enforcement agencies in nearby states will also help.

“We track (heroin) from New York City to Hartford, Conn., to Vermont,” Donelan said. “Connecting with other states and sharing intelligence (on drug cases) could be a help with enforcement.”

Interstate 91 is a major corridor in that interstate drug trade, and some in law enforcement have dubbed it the “heroin highway” for all the drug busts that result from routine traffic stops on the road.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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