Gov.’s Opioid Task Force offers ideas for addiction solutions

GREENFIELD — The state task force charged with bringing recommendations to the governor relative to the state opioid addiction crisis has done so. The task force’s recommendations include expanding state-funded residential treatment programs for underserved populations and “geographically underserved” areas such as Franklin County.

“It’s definitely a great start for us, it’s the first line of kind of defense on this is getting people to detox, and from there to other avenues of treatment that will help longer term,” said Franklin Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan, who traveled to Boston for the announcement. “We can continue to work on the other pieces that we need, the stabilization in many cases and then the longer term residential.”

Merrigan co-founded the Franklin County, Hampshire County and North Quabbin Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force last year in response to the increasing presence of a state- and regionwide problem, and the increasing number the families broken apart by substance abuse who came through his office.

“We have a long, long way to go. Once we are able to get the resources in place for people locally to get help, we need to do the outreach to the community and find the people who need the help,” Merrigan said.

Gov. Deval Patrick commissioned the recommendations in March while declaring an opioid public health emergency statewide. Patrick’s response Tuesday included convening a meeting of regional governors June 17 at Brandeis University to discuss a regional response to the opioid addiction epidemic, according to a release from his office.

The parallel problems of heroin and opioid painkiller abuse and addiction have reportedly taken hold throughout the Northeast, with news from Vermont, Rhode Island, New York and elsewhere mirroring the local situation. Vermont’s governor grabbed headlines this spring by addressing his state’s epidemic of addiction in his State of the State address.

The DPH-headed Opioid Task Force’s recommendations resemble the list of focus group recommendations released as a draft two weeks ago.

Among the governor’s short list of steps flowing from the Opioid Task Force’s recommendations are expansion of treatment services and development of a real-time tracking system for these services. Those seeking treatment, or their families or advocates, may spend hours on the phone looking for openings.

The recommendations document attaches expansion of services in multiple areas and the development of the proposed tracking system, possibly an 800-number, to a $10 million trust fund for expanded services proposed in the senate version of the state budget.

A detoxification facility in Franklin County is listed in the Task Force’s recommendations and has been promised by Patrick in the past.

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg called Tuesday’s recommendations another example of Patrick’s commitment to western Massachusetts.

“I commend Register of Probate John Merrigan, Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, the Opioid Task Force they assembled, and the Franklin County legislative delegation for their spirit of partnership in the face of this crisis, and I congratulate Governor Patrick for his leadership, and for once again remembering western Mass., especially in a time of need,” Rosenberg wrote in a release.

Marisa Hebble, coordinator of the area Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force was on-hand for the announcement in Boston with Merrigan and another of the local effort’s founders, Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan.

“The governor said he wants prompt implementation, obviously that’s not going to be simple ... I did get the sense being there that Franklin County is on the radar as a high priority,” Hebble said. In addition to the recommendation for a detox facility listed by DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett, Hebble said she felt the area would be a strong candidate for at least two other recommendations — five new prevention coalitions and expanded hours for peer-to-peer recovery centers. Hebble said the Education and Awareness Task Force could benefit from continued funding, which began this year. The RECOVER Project, on Federal Street in Greenfield, is the state’s first peer-to-peer recovery center and could benefit from increased funding to extend hours into nights and weekends, as recommended by the state task force.

The recommendations drew on focus groups and interviews in 19 locations. Members of the state task force met with the local task force in May.

The Department of Public Health and Division of Insurance will also review insurance coverage and develop a definition of medical necessity, establishing a minimum point at which insurers must cover opioid abuse and addiction treatment. Insurers are currently required by law to cover medically necessary addiction treatment as they would any other treatment, but what constitutes medical necessity has been left up to the individual insurers.

Other moves highlighted in the release from the governor’s office include expansion of the addiction treatment system for inmates leaving correctional facilities, including expanded use of the injectable naltrexone or Vivitrol program. Vivitrol is a long-acting opioid blocker injected monthly, and already in use for Franklin County House of Correction inmates.

Enhancing opioid education is the final highlighted recommendation. The DPH is to launch a statewide awareness campaign for youth and parents “to promote more openness and dialogue about issues of addiction and recovery.”

Openness is a critical piece of the solution as Merrigan sees it. A lot of the problem stays hidden beneath the surface and those people don’t get help because people believe they will get better alone or are ashamed, he said. “I think as people become more aware that it’s a disease and nothing to be ashamed of they will come forward and try to get their loved ones help,” Merrigan said.

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

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