Opioid crisis: State targets drug abuse problem

MassLive - With opioid overdoses becoming a growing problem in Massachusetts, state officials have established three task forces to look at the issues surrounding opioid addiction. "The idea is eventually we're all going to merge each other's work and put a plan together and have an actual piece of legislation for this session," said state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, a member of a Special Senate Committee on Opioid Addiction Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery Options.

Last year, as overdose deaths spiked, then-Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law reforming insurance policy and creating new reporting requirements related to substance abuse. The law requires insurers to pay for 14 days of inpatient care for acute treatment for addiction without prior authorization. It requires a commission to prepare a list of drugs that can be substituted for opiates and requires pharmacists to dispense and insurers to cover abuse deterrent drugs. Several of the insurance provisions go into effect in October.

This year, under Gov. Charlie Baker, the state has continued to make combating opioid addiction a priority.

The most visible task force is one formed by Baker and chaired by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. The task force, which includes Attorney General Maura Healey and experts in health care, drug addiction and law enforcement, has held four public hearings around the state, heard from 1,100 people and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. Recovering addicts and bereaved family members told heartbreaking stories as they asked for more treatment beds, better insurance coverage and more education.

The task force is expected to release results by early June.

"We'll be definitely focusing on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery recommendations for the governor," Sudders said. Sudders said will not prejudge the task force's findings, but she hopes to make recommendations relating to increasing access to treatment and not requiring people to fail at lower levels of care before accessing treatment they need.

"The overall goal is to reduce opioid deaths in the commonwealth of Massachusetts and make sure people get the treatment they need," Sudders said.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has convened a separate legislative special committee, chaired by Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster. The committee is tasked with overseeing implementation of the law signed in August and with making additional recommendations to address opioid abuse through prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery.

There are also several bills addressing substance abuse already pending in the Legislature.

One, sponsored by Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, would create a drug stewardship program in which a fee is added to the price of addictive narcotics, and that money is used to buy back excess drugs if, for example, someone is prescribed 50 pills but only takes 10.

Lesser wrote a bill to amend a prescription drug monitoring program to require pharmacies to report filling prescriptions for addictive narcotics within a day, rather than within a week. The goal would be to stop people from "pharmacy shopping," filling one prescription multiple places.

Another bill filed by Lesser would let the state purchase the anti-overdose drug Narcan in bulk, so it could get cheaper prices, then distribute the drug to local police or ambulance departments.

In addition to those two committees, Healey has formed a working group of lawyers and investigators within her office to look at what the attorney general can do.

In an April interview, Healey said she is a looking at strengthening the state's prescription drug monitoring program and cracking down on "problematic prescribing and dispensing practices." She wants to focus on education and outreach to young people and families to prevent drug addiction, and to work with insurers and health care providers to ensure access to treatment.

Healey's office has particularly been working in enforcement. In one case, Healey sued the North Andover-based Center for Psychiatric Medicine for allegedly charging MassHealth patients hundreds of dollars in cash fees for the anti-addiction drug Suboxone, when the medication would have been covered by MassHealth. The center allegedly allowed patients to pay cash to skip therapy sessions and physician visits.

Healey's office has investigated and prosecuted criminal cases related to heroin trafficking and to people writing fake prescriptions. She requested information from the manufacturer and distributors of Narcan about recent price spikes. She has requested information from insurers about why Boston area drug rehabilitation patients who were affected by the Long Island bridge closure saw claims for treatment beds denied. A division of her office has been researching issues related to insurance coverage, cost trends and parity for physical and behavioral health treatment.

"Everyone needs to be at the table, because every day people are dying here in this state...and if we don't come together now, it's just going to continue to get worse and worse," Healey said.

NewsEric Lesser