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Patrick declares opioid health emergency

Response to heroin, pill abuse; bans painkiller, promises money for treatment

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday declared a statewide public health emergency in response to what he said is a growing opioid addiction epidemic, committing the Department of Public Health to a number of immediate steps and a 60-day planning process for further action, with money to back it up.

Patrick ordered four initial steps Thursday, including an immediate mandate for all physicians and pharmacies to participate in the state’s previously voluntary prescription monitoring program.

“I don’t think we can wait, there’s too many stories of duplicate prescriptions, of over-prescribing, like Vicodin for a sore throat; we need to take care of that right now,” Patrick said.

Patrick has also ordered DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett to immediately ban a powerful new opioid painkiller, a hydrocodone formulation recently approved as Zohydro, and to increase access to the opioid overdose antidote naloxone hydrochloride, or Narcan, through pharmacies and through police and firefighters with universal permission to first responders to carry and administer the life-saving drug. Whether such permission is necessary has been unclear, Patrick said.

An expanded Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention has 60 days to present recommendations on topics including better coordination of services, ensuring a full range of treatment regardless of insurance and diverting nonviolent, addicted criminal defendants into treatment programs instead of prisons.

“The administration will also dedicate an additional $20 million to increase treatment and recovery services to the general public, to the Department of Corrections and to Sheriffs’ Departments,” read an announcement from the governor’s office.

Patrick said how that money will be apportioned will depend on the recommendations made, highlighting outpatient treatments like the monthly opioid blocking injection commonly known as Vivitrol, a lesser-known cousin of methadone and Suboxone.

The declaration gives the governor and the head of the Department of Public Health broad powers to fight the problem, felt locally in a growing trend of petty crime, family dysfunction and death.

“A little while ago, I decided we needed to do something a little more affirmative than what we had been doing,” Patrick said Thursday afternoon, saying he has heard from sheriffs, families, legislators, and others all concerned with the ease of access to heroin and the well-worn path from prescription painkillers.

Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan was among those voices. In a January letter, Donelan called on Patrick for help with what he called a public health emergency in Franklin County following a sharp increase in overdose deaths.

Asked how things came to this pass in Franklin County, where there is no detox beyond the hospital mental health unit or emergency department following state funding cuts and no interim recovery outside of jail, Patrick said the private insurance needs to play its role.

“One big problem that comes through is how much recovery is dependent on public financing and how much private insurance often looks the other way,” he said.

Patrick said he had no comment on reports that public insurance reimburses providers at a rate too low to maintain the system.

“I don’t have all the answers until the task force finishes their work,” he said.

“I think what we’re going to get, because of the breadth and depth of the participants in the task force, is precisely the kind of comprehensive plan that I have asked for,” he said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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