August 31 was International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual remembrance of the terrible toll that addiction and drug abuse currently impose on our nation and beyond. In Massachusetts, nearly 1900 individuals died of a drug overdose in 2017, most involving an opioid, heroin, fentanyl or combination of addictive drugs. Preliminary data from 2018 shows no significant improvement in the sad story that these statistics tell.
Massachusetts is, however, working hard to try an influence a turnaround in this epidemic of overdose deaths through legislation, funding and awareness campaigns. On Thursday July 19, 2018 our State Senate unanimously passed legislation referred to as the “CARE Act” (an Act for prevention and access to appropriate care and treatment of addiction).
Representative Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) called it “…a great initiative designed to help combat the opioid addiction crisis, and I hope this is a right step in helping those who need it and provides the resources to do that.” Echoing his sentiments, Senator Cindy Friedman stated “It keeps Massachusetts as a leader in the fight to stop this illness from continuing to ravage our residents and our communities.”
What exactly does this new legislation accomplish? The 50-page document contains multiple provisions for a variety of common-sense changes and improvements to current laws, along with funding for programs that are long overdue.
For example, there are provisions in the new laws to promote treatment programs to help patients who are struggling with addiction. Incarcerated criminals will have the opportunity to obtain treatment for addiction prior to release. According to section 62 “A state or county correctional facility shall make treatment under this section available not less than 30 days prior to release of any person in the custody of a state or county correctional facility for whom such treatment is determined to be medically appropriate…”
We can’t be releasing people from our prison system who were admitted with addiction and expect they will stay clean without treatments that have been proven to reduce cravings and prevent drug overdose deaths.
Some of the new laws are pharmacy-related. Currently patients are allowed to fill less than the full amount of a prescribed Schedule 2 narcotic (like Percocet, morphine, oxycodone or Vicodin). But when doing so (called a “partial fill”), they forfeit the opportunity to fill the balance if they need it. As a result, few patients opt to fill a smaller amount since they may need the full amount to manager their acute pain. The new legislation would allow patients to fill the balance of their partially filled prescription.
There is also language within the bill to move entirely toward “electronic” prescriptions for controlled substances, reducing the possibility of the patient (or pharmacy) tampering with the prescription and changing the amount prescribed. Section 32 states “Prescribers shall issue an electronic prescription for all controlled substances and medical devices.”
There were some controversial parts of the bill that were removed prior to its passing. For example, some representatives wanted to explore the creation of “supervised injection sites” where heroin could be used under the direct oversight of medical personnel, enabling healthcare professionals to respond immediately in case of an overdose.
Such a provision was, wisely in my opinion, struck from the law. Representative Fattman opposed that plan stating ““I will not support allowing supervised injection of Class A narcotics at a time when we are trying to break the scourge of addiction. The proposal is counter intuitive and directly contests the efforts of myself and other officials in the district who all helped secure funding for opioid addiction services.”
While I don’t think that legislation is the ultimate answer to our opioid crisis, good laws are a good start. Together we must work to create a culture where hope isn’t found in a needle, but in serving others and in promoting good deeds, generosity and faith. But I for one will still applaud every small step in the right direction.