Overdoses in Massachusetts are at a Record High
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker recently released details on a new plan to fight prescription painkiller abuse. His plan, which I’ll touch on below, is desperately needed in the Bay State, which has been among the states hardest hit by the pain pill epidemic.
Before unveiling his new plan, Governor Baker released new statistics on painkiller abuse. These numbers, taken from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, highlight the devastating effect opioids have had on the state.
As of 2013, there were 868 unintentional opioid overdose deaths. Once all currently open cases are closed, that number’s expected to rise to 978. That’s a 46% increase from the prior year’s painkiller related deaths. That’s also an astonishingly high number of avoidable deaths.
As for opioid overdoses that didn’t result in death, well, Massachusetts has had their fair share of those as well. In 2013 there were 2,008 extended hospital stays and 4,570 ER visits due to pain pill abuse.
Breaking this numbers down by county, Plymouth County has born the brunt of painkiller abuse. For every 1,000 patients with an opioid prescription, just over sixteen patients exhibit “concerning behavior.” Concerning behavior is defined as someone having multiple opioid prescriptions from multiple doctors and filling those prescriptions at multiple pharmacies.
Following in Plymouth’s footsteps are Bristol and Barnstable counties. For every 1,000 patients with an opioid prescription, they have 15.7 and 15.5 patients exhibiting concerning behavior, respectively.
So, what exactly is Governor Baker doing to address Massachusetts’ large number of painkiller addicts?
Massachusetts’ Solution to Prescription Drug Abuse
The major plan that Gov. Baker unveiled was to form a sixteen person Opioid Addiction Working Group. Marylou Sudders, the Secretary of Massachusetts’ Department of Health and Human Services, will chair this group.
The Opioid Addiction Working Group, or OAWG for short, will be made up of almost exclusively “private sector experts.” These include, among others: Maura Healey, Monica Bharel, Bill Carpenter, Joseph McDonald, John McGahan, Fred Newton, Cindy Steinberg, Steve Tolman, and Sarah Wakeman.
While these might not be household names, you’ll be hard pressed to find more knowledgeable and effective substance abuse advocates. Some of the above run treatment centers, others work for the state, and still others work at hospitals.
What exactly will this Opioid Addiction Working Group do though? Well, they’ll first consult with a number of individuals and groups across the state. They’ll gather information and strategies to best serve the general public of Massachusetts.
They’ll also hold a number of public events across the state, the first of which takes place on March 10th in Worcester. Finally, after consulting with individuals and holding these events, the group will make a number of concrete recommendations about further steps to reduce painkiller overdose and abuse.
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Other Deterrent Measures
Gov. Baker’s sixteen member Opioid Addiction Working Group isn’t the first step Massachusetts has taken to reduce painkiller abuse. In fact, it’s not even the fifth, or tenth, step. So, what has Massachusetts been doing? More importantly, has it been working to curb pain pill misuse?
In 2014, former Governor Deval Patrick instituted a mandatory program called the Prescription Monitoring Program. This initiative took the form of a statewide service that monitored the number of opioid prescriptions doctors wrote. Has it had any meaningful impact?
Well, it appears not. This is due to the fact that as of February 2015 only 65% of Massachusetts’ doctors are participating. That number should be closer to 95% or even 100%. However, many more doctors are expected to begin participating after learning of 2013’s record number of overdose deaths.
State Representative Christopher Walsh introduced a piece of legislation that would limit the number pills prescribed to patients in the ER. This measure will, in theory, cut down on addicts using Emergency Rooms as a source of painkillers.
Representative Walsh pointed to a similar initiative implemented by Blue Cross Blue Shield. The insurance company’s strategy led to a 25% decrease in reimbursement claims for painkillers.
Another strategy to prevent painkiller abuse is collaborative in nature. Gov. Baker has proposed teaming up with neighboring states Vermont and Rhode Island to form a multiple state painkiller deterrent program. This program would attempt to prevent individuals from filling opioid prescriptions at multiple pharmacies.
Finally, the current Massachusetts’ administration will attempt to offer quarterly and monthly updates on overdose data. These updates will be broken down by counties and even communities in an effort to better understand opioid overdose trends.
All of the above shows that Massachusetts is taking numerous proactive steps to curb painkiller abuse and addiction. Let’s hope these measures work. It’s no hyperbole to say that America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. It’s innovative approaches like these that offer real hope for the future.