Legislators pledge funding as addiction cases continue rising

  • MARKEY

  • NEAL

  • McGOVERN

Staff Writer
Published: 3/18/2021 1:48:41 PM
Modified: 3/18/2021 1:48:38 PM

Federal legislators told the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region on Wednesday that addiction should be examined through the lens of mental health, not moral failing, and that it is imperative that programs like the ones the local task force offers be funded.

The task force met virtually with local agency heads and state and local legislators to discuss what some of the continuing needs are when it comes to helping individuals and their families through addiction and recovery.

“We’ve been doing groundbreaking work,” said Sheriff Christopher Donelan, who is a co-chair of the Opioid Task Force. “But there are still deficiencies in the work being done with the addicted community.”

Donelan, along with his co-chairs, Register of Probate John Merrigan and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, said the work continues to require funding from the federal government.

“You were all early supporters of the task force,” Sullivan told the legislators. “There were 100,000 overdose deaths (across the country) this year. This is a great crisis, and we’re working hard out here.”

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey said he began working in 2014 on the issue, hoping to bring it into focus and attract public attention.

“You all have a great dedication to this issue,” he told Opioid Task Force members. “Your state legislators are working hard as well. And we will continue to do the same.”

Markey said because his wife is a psychiatrist who has worked with people experiencing substance abuse disorders for most of her career, she explained to him early on that it is a mental health issue, not just an addiction issue.

He said a federal bill was just signed to provide $4 billion to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“The good news is more funding is on the way, but the bad news is the disease is on the rise,” Markey said. “The pandemic has created a real problem in communities and we don’t know the full extent yet. So, we’ll start with $4 billion to get funding into the hands of communities, counties like yours, but we’ll need to do a lot more.

“That’s what I’ll be working on,” he continued. “I’ll make sure the funding is there.”

Task force member Dr. Ruth Potee, medical director for addiction services for all of Behavioral Health Network, said one of the major focuses, the way to save lives, is to change the antiquated rules and regulations concerning methadone.

“It’s one of the most effective drugs, but the rules and regulations haven’t changed since 1972,” she said. “How to dose, who is allowed treatment, there’s been almost no change. It’s unnecessary to regulate it like this.”

During the pandemic, a waiver has allowed people to take it home, but that waiver could be pulled at any moment, she said, and that would mean people will die.

She said there are three medications used for medication-assisted treatment, better known as MAT: buprenorphine and naltrexone can be prescribed by primary care providers, who can also prescribe methadone for treating pain. However, Potee said, when methadone is prescribed for opioid use disorder, it is subject to “such an intense level of regulation that it is out of reach for tens of thousands of people who could benefit from it.”

Potee told Markey and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, who was also on the video call, that ensuring that relaxed take-home methadone allowances extend beyond the COVID-19 state of emergency, lifting the moratorium on mobile methadone vans, and establishing a commission to fully examine and update the outdated methadone system are necessary life-saving measures that need to be instituted.

“I appreciate the work the task force is doing, and I associate myself with Sen. Markey’s remarks,” McGovern said. “I understand your frustration and the glacial pace of policy-making. Sometimes it can be quite disconnected.”

McGovern said he agrees that legislators and others have to put the people who need help first.

“Overdose deaths were on the rise before the pandemic, and now they’re at a record high,” he said.

According to the Opioid Task Force, in 2008, Franklin County and the North Quabbin region reported eight overdose deaths. The number spiked to 19 in 2015 and over the next two years lowered to 13 and 12, respectively. But in 2018, 30 were reported, 28 were reported in 2019 and last year saw 31.

“The increase in overdose deaths is heartbreaking,” McGovern said. “We need to expand prevention and funding, keep programs going and respond to what those on the front lines, like you, believe works.”

McGovern said the challenges and hurdles that present themselves with addiction also need to be addressed and treated with compassion. He said it’s not only addiction that needs to be considered, but also housing, employment, health care, family, mental health and anxiety, and more.

“We need to bring so many people to the table,” he said. “People who will represent the enormity of the issue.”

U.S. Rep Richard Neal sent a recorded message because he could not be on the meeting. He said the opioid crisis has devastated individuals and families across the country, and it doesn’t discriminate by age or economic status.

“I’m dedicated to providing aid and finding solutions, but I have to know how to best support your efforts,” he told the task force. “We’ll continue to fund programs that will help individuals face the crushing impacts of addiction, but we’ve got a long road ahead. I do emphasize hope, though.”

Donelan said medication-assisted treatment is the only solution when it comes to treating those who have been incarcerated and preventing convicted criminals from re-offending when they are released.

“They need stability,” he said. “We need to give them a chance. They need to be able to secure safe, affordable housing, which is a social determinant of health.”

He said housing is one of the largest barriers for people who have been incarcerated and have substance abuse problems. Members of the Opioid Task Force, local agencies and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) agreed that’s an issue at the top of their lists.

Baystate Franklin Medical Center President Ron Bryant said the hospital would like to help reach people where they live. He said connecting with someone at the onset of their problems and linking them with resources is the goal.

“We want to keep them out of the emergency department,” he said. “We’d like to see them stay in the community, reaching them before it becomes a crisis.”

Bryant said the Greenfield hospital will do whatever it can, whether that means providing outreach or funding, to help.

Similarly, Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernández said the college has been working with students in its skills program, offering support and advice.

“A number of students will want an opportunity to turn their lives around,” she said, “and we’ll be there to support them.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.


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