Many families ravaged by opioid abuse are embracing Gov. Charlie Baker’s declaration that addiction is a medical disease.
“It definitely is a disease as far as I’m concerned,” said Paula Gilligan, a Burlington resident who lost her son Ryan to a heroin overdose in 2012. “I used to have the opinion that it was a choice, but as I’ve learned by having a child who was addicted, it definitely alters their brain chemistry. Once they’re addicted, they’re unable to make the choice. They know they don’t want to be addicted, but they don’t have the willpower to avoid it.”
Baker recently announced a $27 million series of recommendations developed by a working group he formed to address the growing issue of opioid abuse.
“I commend Governor Baker for establishing an 18-member Opioid Working Group, and am encouraged by its initial recommendations in tackling the drug crisis that exists in Massachusetts as a public health problem, and for most users, a disease. I applaud the working group for recognizing that we as a society cannot arrest our way out of substance abuse,” said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton.
Since 2004, more than 6,600 people have died of overdoses in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Public Health.
“We have lost over 1,000 residents to drugs in our commonwealth last year,” said state Rep. Kate Hogan, D-Stow. “As the House chair of Public Health, I understand substance abuse is a public health crisis and agree that we can’t arrest our way out of this epidemic.”
The group’s recommendations include adding 100 residential treatment beds in the next year, strengthening prescription drug monitoring and partnering with a chain pharmacy to pilot a prescription drug take-back program.
The group also recommends establishing a state certification program to increase accountability at sober houses and requiring all licensed treatment programs to accept patients who use methadone or buprenorphine medication.
“Increasing our resources for drug treatment will ensure that integrating addiction and mental health care into primary care are part of the path forward to provide better care to addicts, and better support to their friends and loved ones,” said Eldridge.
“He’s nailing a lot of things that have needed to be done for a long time,” said Raynham resident Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn to Cope, a statewide support program for families of loved ones suffering from addiction.
Peterson, who founded the organization after seeing her son battle addiction, said she’s encouraged by the amount of attention policymakers are devoting to curbing opioid abuse.
“I think back to 10 or 11 years ago when this wasn’t talked about,” she said.
Baker’s working group’s report contains both long-term and short-term recommendations, some of which will require legislative approval.
“The governor has gathered strategies and options from the Opioid Working Group and it is now on the legislature to work closely with Governor Baker and AG Healey in crafting comprehensive legislation and investing in additional treatment beds. Hopefully we can accomplish some goals of the report during the budget process. I also am sure that Speaker DeLeo has already said he would be amenable to making monetary resources available,” said Hogan.
In announcing the working group’s recommendations, Baker labeled opioid abuse a public health epidemic.
“Opioid addiction is a health care issue that knows no boundaries across age, race, class, or demographics,” the governor said.
He announced a new public awareness campaign focused on framing addiction as a medical disease.
Merilee Paul of Rockland, who has lost friends to overdoses and seen family members struggle with addiction, welcomes that approach.
“I’m excited that addiction is being recognized as a medical condition because that will hopefully break down the walls to treatment by reducing the stigma,” she said.
Gloucester resident Kathy Day, who has also seen relatives battle addiction, said she is encouraged by the acknowledgement that “for folks who struggle, it’s not a choice.”
Day is optimistic that the new recommendations will increase treatment options for patients who use medication to manage their addictions.
“Many treatment programs don’t accept folks who are on medicated treatment, like methadone or suboxone,” Day said. “This will open up availability. I say that cautiously.”
The report also includes a set of steps aimed at helping prison inmates who suffer from addiction continue their treatment without interruption upon release. The plan calls for an inmate’s MassHealth benefits to be suspended rather than terminated during incarceration. It also recommends forming partnerships between prisons and community health centers.
“At a time when 80 percent of those in the custody of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office self-identify with an addiction issue, continuity of health care is a critical link to recovery and reducing crime,” Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said in a statement.
Former prosecutor Marcy Julian of Wilbraham also applauded the plan.
Julian, whose son battled opioid addiction, left her job as an assistant district attorney in Springfield to work for Learn to Cope. While she says the criminal justice system has a role in addressing the problem of addiction, she stresses a need for a multifaceted approach.
“I saw how ineffective punishment is for substance abusers, and I’m really happy to see in the report released today that treatment instead of punishment should be the priority,” Julian said.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge represents the Middlesex & Worcester Senate District, which includes the towns of Maynard and Stow. State Rep. Kate Hogan represents the Third Middlesex District, which includes the towns of Maynard and Stow.
Staff writer Holly Camero contributed to this story.
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