Forum to examine opioid crisis in western Mass.

  • Dr. Ruth Potee, an expert on opioid addiction based in Franklin County, speaks Dec. 9 during a memorial service at Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton for Eliza Harper, 26, of Deerfield, who died from a heroin overdose on Nov. 30.

  • Dr. Ruth Potee, director of addiction services for Behavioral Health Network in Springfield, is one of the panelists who will be speaking at a Sept. 6 forum at UMass. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/27/2019 1:05:13 AM

AMHERST — Although deaths from opioid overdoses appear to be receding statewide, health experts say the problem continues to worsen in western Massachusetts.

Coinciding with the release of a report on the issue by the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research organization based at Brandeis University, there will be a forum next month at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The forum will take place Sept. 6 from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the Campus Center Auditorium, 1 Campus Center Way.

“The number of deaths in western Mass. have increased, when they’ve decreased in the rest of the state,” said Michael Doonan, executive director of the Health Policy Forum.

The event will start with a panel discussion on the report, followed by a panel of stakeholders.

The report, put together in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield and with the support of RIZE Massachusetts, Baystate Health and UMass Amherst, delves into the causes of opioid addiction in rural and poor areas in western Massachusetts and explores ways to fight the crisis.

“This is a systematic analysis of the problem in western Mass.,” said Doonan.

According to statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, although the rate of opioid-related deaths has decreased in Massachusetts, it has increased in Franklin, Berkshire, Hampshire and Hampden counties by 73 percent.

Doonan said that while the levels of fentanyl in heroin are higher in the eastern part of the state, those levels are increasing everywhere, including western Massachusetts. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid associated with the vast majority of fatal opioid overdoses in the state, experts say.

Ruth Potee, director of addiction services for Behavioral Health Network in Springfield, is one of the panelists who will be speaking at the forum. She said the numbers are even worse in Hampden County, with opioid deaths doubling from 2017 to 2018.

“Despite all of our efforts, more people are dying,” said Potee. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Still, Potee said there has been progress in the commonwealth.

“We’ve advanced 100 years in the last seven years,” she said.

Potee noted the widespread understanding of addiction as a disease, as well as the prevalence of people discussing the use of the overdose-reversal drug Narcan. Additionally, she said that half of the commonwealth’s jails and one of its state institutions will be offering the full range of medications to treat opioid addiction, including methadone, by Sept. 1.

Potee also works as the medical director of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. In this capacity, she helped the Franklin County House of Correction secure its own methadone license this month, which she said was a difficult process.

One of the things Potee will be speaking about at the forum will be deregulating methadone, and she expressed the desire for pharmacies and community health centers to have a protocol to distribute it.

She said that the absence of methadone clinic spots plays a role in the crisis in western Massachusetts and that for 1½ years the clinics in Hampshire and Franklin counties have largely been unable to take new patients.

Potee also pointed to the example of Portugal, and how they distribute methadone through vans, something she said is illegal in this country, but which would work well in the region.


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