Neal: Community action best response to opioid addiction

  • Congressman Richard Neal PAUL FRANZ

  • Baystate Franklin Medical Center President Cindy Russo Contributed Photo / Cindy Russo

Recorder Staff
Thursday, October 19, 2017

SHELBURNE FALLS — The opioid addiction crisis is no longer just an urban problem, but is also leaving its mark on the quality of life in rural towns, Congressman Richard E. Neal told a West County audience Thursday.

Neal and his five panelists hosted a two-hour opioid forum in Memorial Hall to highlight the issue and encourage participants to speak out on their concerns. Use of the hall was donated by the Memorial Hall Association.

Last year, at least 60,000 people died nationally of drug overdoses, which is now the leading cause of death for people under age 50, according to Neal. In Massachusetts, more people now die from drug overdoses than from car crashes or gun violence, according to Neal. Of the overdose deaths, at least half involved heroin or prescription narcotics OxyContin, Vicodin and Fentanyl. “There is not a family in Massachusetts that hasn’t been touched by this crisis,” Neal asserted.

Michael Botticelli, former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for President Barack Obama, said Massachusetts has always been a pioneer on opioid drug-abuse prevention. One of the outcomes, said Botticelli, who is now executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, is how police departments are changing their approach to people with addictions. “Arresting people with an addiction is not the approach,” he said. “It’s about seeing addiction as a disease. Again, I think we see the need to do a better job getting people into treatment.”

Botticelli remarked that the first half of this year was “the first time we saw a reduction in deaths,” but he expressed concern that what was once a bipartisan issue could be clouded by political polarization.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, a leader of the regional Opioid Task Force, said he started seeing more and more drug overdoses among the unattended deaths reported to his office. At that time, he said, “there was zero treatment beds for 51 communities and zero detox beds.”

“It’s not just enough to say: ‘We can’t incarcerate our way out of addiction.’ We have to find the solutions.”

Shelburne Police Chief Gregory Bardwell said he became interested in police work while attending the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program as a high school student. Now in his 11th year in law enforcement, Bardwell said, “I had no idea I would be dealing with something like this, in Shelburne.” Bardwell wants his department to be “opening and welcoming” to local youths, for the police officers to use their leadership role to answer questions and guide youth away from behaviors that could result in addiction.

Baystate Franklin Medical Center President Cindy Russo said all the hospital’s medical providers have taken a “safe prescribing pledge” regarding opioid prescription medications, and that the hospital is working with more than 20 community programs to help people move from addiction.

Russo said about 6.6 percent of the 500 babies per year born in the hospital are born with addictions. She said the obstetrics department tries to work with mothers prenatally, and has programs to ease the newborns through addiction withdrawal.

Neal was asked why the “Enduring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act” — sponsored by President Donald Trump’s former selection for “drug czar,” U.S. Rep. Tom Marino — was approved by unanimous consent on the part of Congress. The bill is said to have weakened the Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts to keep distribution companies from supplying drugs to those selling it on the black market. Neal was also asked if he was going to “donate to charity” campaign contributions he received from one of the pharmaceutical companies.

First, Botticelli explained that he was among the federal agencies that reviewed the bill before it went to Congress. “The staff in my office had lengthy debate with the Justice Department. They did not think this would have a major impact on DEA’s enforcement abilities,” he said. “Now I look back at that and take some responsibility. We should not have taken the Justice Department’s analysis of the bill. We weren’t alone in this. But, in a way, that’s why it passed with universal consent.”

Neal said “universal consent” is an arcane parliamentary procedure for passing a “noncontroversial bill.” Someone would have to object to stop a universal consent, he explained. In this case, Congress had adjourned before this bill was approved without objection, after 7:15 on April 12, 2016.

Neal said the pharmaceutical company that donated to his campaign never asked him to take any action with regard to this bill.

Two men who said they had long been in recovery argued that more programs should involve people who understand what an addict must go through. “Honor Court was giving people in recovery a chance to be part of the community,” said a Greenfield man. “How better if a handful of people want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Pat Keith of the United ARC told panelists that many grandparents are now caring for their grandchildren and for their adult children with addiction problems. She said many lack programs that could help them with needs for housing, or for finding guardians for the grandchildren, who may have special needs or other difficulties.

Reach Diane Broncaccio at 413-772-0261, ext. 277 or by email: dbroncaccio@recorder.com