The Opioid Epidemic: 'We need to double down on our response and do even more in 2018'

In Masslive 1/18/18

Imagine your daughter is addicted to prescription opioids after treating injuries from a car accident. After haggling with insurance companies and hounding state agencies, you have finally secured her a bed in a recovery center -- only to be told that the nearest available center is 90 miles east and will only provide a few days of care.

In many cases, parents are relieved when their own children get arrested, because it offers their only hope for detox. This is a disgrace for our commonwealth; we have a moral obligation to fix it.

For two decades, big pharmaceutical companies peddled powerful painkillers, knowing full well their deadly potential. They looked the other way -- and profited handsomely -- while highly addictive pills flooded our streets, to the point that more than a third of U.S. adults were prescribed opioids by 2015.

Now, we're witnessing the devastating results: families hollowed out across our country and in Western Mass, where we have felt a disproportionate share of our Commonwealth's opioid epidemic.

Fortunately, there was a bright spot of news when new data showed the number of overdose deaths in Massachusetts fell 10 percent in 2017.

The reduction is attributed in part to the wide availability of Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug, and to the fact that Massachusetts was the first state to limit the number of opioid pills doctors can prescribe per prescription. Working to implement both those policies has been among the most important work I've done in the Senate.

But these gains are modest compared to the scope of the overall problem, which is why we need to double down on our response and do even more in 2018.

First, we must continue to expand the number of treatment beds available, specifically in Western Mass., and give health professionals new tools to require people to receive treatment when they pose a danger to themselves or others. The first response to substance abuse cannot be a police officer and a jail cell, it must be a recovery coach and a treatment bed.

We must also continue to expand Narcan access by allowing pharmacies to stock it and disburse it over-the-counter.

I was happy to see these measures, and many others, included in new legislation proposed by Governor Baker. I'm committed to working collaboratively with local officials and the Baker Administration to see these solutions implemented. But we must do much more.

I have also introduced a bill, S. 543, to strengthen these measures by requiring health insurers to cover medication-assisted treatment and cap the total out-of-pocket co-pays for methadone treatment programs. Insurance companies, which are so rarely willing to pay, should be required to cover this medically necessary treatment.

Alternative pain management techniques, such as acupuncture, should also be explored as alternatives to prescription painkillers. And we must continue to expand opioid addiction education in our schools, to spot and prevent abuse before it's too late.

Ultimately, the pharmaceutical companies that caused this mess must be held accountable. We are learning more and more about how they knowingly marketed life-threatening products and launched campaigns to convince doctors that these drugs were not as harmful as the research warned, making billions of dollars of profit in the process.

In response, lawsuits are cropping up all over the country, including in Greenfield. I hope these suits are joined by the Attorneys General in Massachusetts and other states across the country.

We will never be able to get back the lives lost or fully repair the families destroyed by this scourge. But the opioid crisis, while daunting and cruel, is solvable if we marshal the will and the focus to fix it.


State Sen. Eric P. Lesser is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire.

Op-edEric Lesser