Help is on the way ...
... but it requires cash, commitment and courage
Kate Shapiro, the new Court Service Center manager at the temporary Franklin County Courthouse, helps people navigate the courts and access community resources. Since the majority of those going through the courts have drug problems, addiction counseling is a big part of her job and an example of how the courts can adjust to fight addiction in the community. Here she talks with people at The RECOVER Project in Greenfield. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Franklin County Register of Probate John Merrigan helped found the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, which aims to spread awareness of the problem and push for a solution. More treatment, Narcan distribution to first-responders and better education regarding the signs and dangers and awareness of what help exists are among the group’s initiatives.
Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »
Ultimately, recovery is up to the individual, whether they come to that first step alone or in a jail cell. The next step, readjusting their brains, bodies and habits to sobriety often takes help that advocates say is unacceptably difficult to access today.
Suggestions for improvements include things as small and specific as creating a app or website to track treatment beds — to take the guessing and endless telephone roulette out of the process — and as broad as changing how and whose money is spent on treatment and prevention.
Money won’t flip a switch and send an addict in search of treatment, but it will build the treatment centers, train the doctors and counselors, pay the rent and keep the lights on for peer-to-peer recovery programs like The Recover Project in Greenfield.
On the law enforcement side, money buys more detectives and time for lengthy investigations of dealers, rents cars for effective undercover work, buys and trains drug-sniffing dogs.
In schools, money buys more education. The Gill-Montague Regional School District expects to spend about $55,000 next school year to return a health teacher to the middle school, someone who can teach young teens about the scourge that is addiction.
The recently formed state Senate Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options is touring the state and is expected to offer recommendations in time for the Senate budget debate.
The committee has held hearings across the state.
Bills are on the way
There are a host of bills about addiction at various stages of the legislative process.
Rep. Randy Hunt has introduced Bill H.3825, which would establish commissions tasked with examining the court and jail substance abuse systems with an eye to creating a definition of “nonviolent substance addicted offender” and diverting these people from jail into treatment, as well as expanding addiction treatment programs.
Rep. Byron Rushing has proposed H.1809, which would oblige the Department of Public Health to create an addiction treatment safety net for anyone with no other recourse through existing programs or their health insurance.
Among the other bills, Rep. Kay Khan has proposed H.2632 to establish the “substance abuse health protection fund,” to fund such a system through the sales tax on restaurant alcohol sales.
Bill H.3910, proposed by Rep. Claire D. Cronin, would ramp up penalties against dealers who prey on people seeking treatment by increasing maximum jail time for anyone dealing drugs within 300 feet of any treatment-related premises, including Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Another would allow the family of a person injured by illegal drug use to sue the dealer.
Speaking recently in Greenfield, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg supported bills that provide more treatment and called for an increase in the state and federal insurance reimbursement for addiction treatment.
Rosenberg said that the state and federal insurance programs, often the providers of last resort, pay inadequate reimbursement rates, making the residents with the least options less desirable patients.
Demand is high for another service, addiction counseling, but the supply is again limited by insurance.
In Massachusetts, there are a little over a thousand independent addiction counselors with master’s or doctoral degrees licensed to operate outside of a clinic or hospital — but addiction is of epidemic proportions, according to Maryanne Frangules, executive director of the advocacy group Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery.
The DPH licenses independent alcohol and drug counselors, but these counselors cannot bill insurance unless they are also licensed as a social worker, separate educational tracks.
“If you would add that insurance piece I think you would find so many more people wanting to be licensed alcohol and drug counselors,” Frangules said.
On the state side, treatment money began disappearing in the early 2000s with the Romney administration, according to treatment providers. Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s 24-bed detox, the only such facility in the county, closed in 2003.
Rosenberg has called for increased treatment access to be made a spending priority in the budget currently in development.
Local Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, and Rosenberg have already secured $40,000 to hire a coordinator for the local Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force.
Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, is pushing for $500,000 to be earmarked for inpatient treatment in the North Quabbin region, which includes Orange and Athol, through a bond bill making its way through the state process.
Northwestern Opioid Task Force
Spearheaded by Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, Sheriff Christopher Donelan and Franklin Register of Probate and Family Court John Merrigan, the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force aims to spread awareness of the problem and push for a solution. More treatment, Narcan distribution to first-responders and better education regarding the signs and dangers and awareness of what help exists are among the group’s initiatives.
The task force has already succeeded in organizing a forum that put the region’s legislators and some of the state’s most powerful functionaries in a room with hundreds of concerned people and a handful of the county’s more engaged and persuasive leaders, and quiet meetings with hospital administrators and more recently school superintendents seem to have communicated their concern.
Heroin isn’t new. It and other addictive drugs aren’t new to Franklin County, but a steadily growing problem motivated Merrigan to start the Task Force last summer and since then he has been appalled by the abrupt worsening of the situation, manifest in his court as grandparents seek to become parents again to care for children of their addicted children.
“We’re not flat-footed. We’re able to have some kind of response to this heroin onslaught that is causing death and family dysfunction, but it’s not good, no matter how you slice it,” Merrigan said.
Merrigan learned from the established Woburn District Court Heroin Education and Awareness Task Force in building the effort. HEAT is essentially a self-motivated reinterpretation of the probation department, with the court’s two probation officers adopting a treatment advocacy role. In that capacity and backed with a half-million- dollar treatment budget from the state, they say they have helped 2,000 people into treatment in eight years.
In that time the principals, Chief Probation Officer Vincent Piro and Probation Officer Michael Higgins, have seen the scale of the problem continue to grow even as they push back. Both are offended at the suggestion that they give up. Inability to eradicate the problem is frustrating, but if it can’t be wiped out by two overworked probation officers, then with several willing police departments and the network of connections developed in eight years of pushing open doors for addicts, they will continue to add to their 2,000.
Merrigan hopes the Northwestern District version won’t face the same time line.
“I hope we can dissolve the task force in five years. I know it’s not going to go away that quickly and maybe that’s a dream, but if we have to be around for the next decade, we will,” he said. “I will give my heart and soul for this effort.”