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Local leaders cautiously optimistic about Trump’s order to form opioid crisis committee



Recorder Staff
Sunday, April 02, 2017

About a week before signing an executive order to form a drug addiction and opioid crisis committee, President Donald Trump pushed for the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.

Local health care providers were worried with mental health and drug abuse money likely to be cut. They quietly questioned to what extent they could still provide services for a community in Franklin County that continues to struggle, despite its best efforts, to curb the opioid epidemic.

Then Trump appointed longtime stalwart in the fight against opioids, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, to head his newly formed committee. Likely pairing up with Christie will be Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who has also helped to shape the country’s efforts to stop the epidemic, which continues to climb to record highs in deaths.

“I’m going to be cautiously optimistic only because I hope this leads to something,” Franklin County Sheriff and Opioid Task Force founding member Christopher Donelan said. “It’s kind of contradictory to what he put out there in the health care plan, which would have reduced money for the drug addiction services.”

Statewide and nationwide, the epidemic has reached a point — notably sparked by the rise in the synthetic, extremely potent street drug fentanyl — in which more people are dying by substance abuse than people who died at the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country.

Prior to the failed effort to repeal and replace what is commonly referred to as Obamacare, regional journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and national ones like the Journal of the American Medical Association authored articles on the potential devastating blow to the health care industry if the bill was to be passed.

“The opioid epidemic cuts across the lines of political polarization, touching nearly every community in this country,” a March New England Journal of Medicine article written by Baystate Health researchers says. “All of them will lose if the ACA is repealed and not replaced by a plan with comparable coverage and parity for treatment of opioid use disorders.”

The act was not repealed and what is now on the table is a committee that looks to tackle the opioid epidemic with some of the lead figures in the country at its helm.

“I want to be very hopeful because theoretically (the president) met people on the campaign trail who were affected by the (opioid epidemic),” leading local expert Dr. Ruth Potee said.

Rep. Susannah Whipps, R-Athol, who is a member of the Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery committee, said Baker would be a good choice to help the president’s committee.

“I can understand why they would want Massachusetts to be involved,” Whipps said. “We’re light-years ahead of other states in regards to recognizing substance abuse as a disease.”

Despite the community’s efforts, Whipps said it has not reached a satisfactory point yet.

“As far ahead as we are of everyone else, we’re not ahead of this epidemic,” Whipps added.

The state legislator said in addition to fighting the stigma on substance abuse care, the government could help provide more money for more beds. Sober housing has been a constant topic of conversation lately in Franklin County, where local leaders have emphasized that there are not enough beds for those who are sincerely trying to become sober.

“If I had a wish list, it would certainly be more detox and rehabilitation beds, support for the families and definitely public information and public education regarding this disease,” Whipps said.

In addition to sober housing, the sheriff said more help is needed when it comes to stopping the entry of drugs into communities.

“Obviously heroin is crossing state lines so if there’s an opportunity for the federal government to help with the drug addiction program on this that would be very welcome,” Donelan said.

The sheriff and a member on the Opioid Task Force, which Whipps noted for its leadership on this issue region-wide, said he would like to see grants for both law enforcement and treatment. One example of a potential grant-funded program he pointed out was turning vacant homes into sober housing.

“Community by community people have great ideas but they don’t always have the resources to support these ideas,” Donelan said.

The details around the committee formed under the president are still vague, but local leaders are crossing their fingers that this is a step in the right direction when it comes to facing a battle they fight on the daily basis.

You can reach
Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264