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AG Healey meets with officials, medical personnel on opioid addiction crisis


Berkshire Eagle
By Jim Therrien
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com @BE_therrien on Twitter

POSTED:   06/05/2015 08:04:16 PM EDT

PITTSFIELD — Attorney General Maura Healey visited the area Friday to meet with local state lawmakers and other officials and stress her support for efforts to reverse the state’s opioid addiction crisis.

Healey also met with medical personnel “working on the front lines” in treatment programs, she said, before discussing the related issues with the elected officials and then holding an afternoon press conference at Berkshire Medical Center.

She said her meetings here are part of a statewide tour to learn about, highlight and promote anti-addiction efforts and treatment availability. “This is a top priority of the attorney general’s office, and it will continue to be,” Healey said.

Western Massachusetts, she added, “is where I first heard of this crisis two years ago as I campaigned for attorney general.”

While not ready to endorse specific legislation, Healey said her office is monitoring a number of bills and she expects to support several. In general, she said, the state has to adequately fund addiction treatment while also focusing on prevention through education of children and adults — and on combating “high-level drug trafficking.”

She also called for a “robust prescription monitoring program,” and best practice models for physicians who prescribe the drugs for pain.

“Four out of five people who become addicted to heroin” started with prescribed medications, Healey said.

“We need to turn off the spigot,” she said, advocating a system to encourage responsible prescription practices by medical personnel.

“Prescribing rates have risen exponentially since 1999,” she said, paralleling a sharp rise in the number treated for addiction and/or abusing heroin.

“We are still seeing a lot of pills out there on the black market,” she said.

Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless, who attended the session, has advocated strong legislation to reduce the flow of opiate prescriptions from doctors’ offices. He has proposed limiting the number of physicians who can write those prescriptions, contending, “This is a deadly medication” and should only be prescribed by a specialist and with follow up to determine whether addiction problems surface.

“You wouldn’t allow every doctor to do brain surgery,” Capeless said Friday, likening the situation to the sale of firearms, which he said are recognized as dangerous and are strictly controlled under state law.

Also attending the press conference were Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, and area lawmakers Sen. Benjamin Downing, and Reps. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, William “Smitty” Pignatelli, Gailanne Cariddi and Paul Mark.

“This delegation has worked very hard together on this for a number of years, along with Berkshire Health Systems,” Pignatelli said. He said the Berkshires is a beautiful and culturally rich area, but underneath the surface, there is a “sickness we need to deal with.”

Pignatelli added that addiction problems should be dealt with “fairly and equitably,” which should include access to insurance coverage for treatment.

In answer to questions, Healey also advocated “destigmatizing” addiction treatment, which some families are reluctant to seek for that reason.

She also favored bulk purchasing by the state or other methods to ensure adequate, reasonably priced supplies of Narcan, an anti-drug overdose medication used by emergency response personnel that has sometimes been in short supply.

The attorney general said she has hope a working group of officials Gov. Charlie Baker has called for to address opioid addiction issues will develop strong recommendations. “Then the important thing will be action,” she said. “You can have all the recommendations in the world, but we need to focus on action.”

Healey also spoke Friday morning before the senior class assembly at Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.