Opioids: Despite progress in Massachusetts, crisis continues to take lives and hurt families

Across the country, opioid addiction is now taking more young lives than the HIV epidemic did at its peak. Nearly 2 million people in the United States suffer from an addiction to prescription opioids, and about 17,000 people die each year from overdosing on these medications. Massachusetts is one of the hardest hit states, with more than 11,000 deaths between 2000 and 2015.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) released new data showing that the number of opioid deaths across the Commonwealth topped out at 2,069 in 2016. That's about 6 deaths a day due to opioids.

Not one of the communities in the 4th Middlesex District has escaped the epidemic. In fact, some of the communities here have been especially hard hit. In 2015, there were 30 deaths in our five communities. The new data from DPH show 41 deaths in 2016. Behind each one of those numbers is a person representing the loss of a friend, neighbor, or loved one.

And, it's a crisis that has affected me, personally. Five years ago, my brother's son, my nephew, died of an overdose of heroin. He was 23. He had struggled with this addiction since high school and had sought opioid addiction recovery treatment and rehabilitation more than once.

A recent Boston Medical Center study published in the Journal of American Pharmacists Association (March-April 2017) suggests that pharmacies should proactively offer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to help put it in the hands of people at risk of abusing opioids. Naloxone is available without a prescription at Bay State pharmacies, however, patients and their loved ones are reluctant to ask for it due to the stigma surrounding addiction.

Several measures currently in the legislature propose to address this crisis. Overdose treatment can be expanded to improve access to naloxone and to increase the number of trained medical personnel to treat overdose. I support efforts to expand access to mental health treatment and the integration of mental health treatment within health care, ensure continuity of care, and adequate reimbursement rates.

Criminal justice reform, along with collaboration with enforcement, are crucial elements to combatting this crisis. Incarceration is not the solution, and in fact is costly in terms of funds that could be used for treatment, in addition to the human cost of locking people up rather than helping them to live productive lives. I would support legislation that creates treatment diversion programs in place of incarceration for low-level offenders who are mentally ill or drug addicted.

And those who have followed this blog for some years know how strongly I support media literacy education. Research-based health programs in public schools that address root causes of substance abuse and other public health issues, including media literacy education, should be employed to empower young people to be discerning consumers of health information and popular culture messages.

It's well past time that we acknowledge human vulnerability and have compassion for those who struggle with all types of addiction. With increased treatment, recovery, and prevention and education, along with criminal justice reform and health care improvements, addiction will be better understood so that we, our friends, and our loved ones might seek the treatment necessary to move past addiction and lead healthy, productive lives.

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