BOSTON — Though he believes Massachusetts leads the nation in training health care providers to deal with the still raging opioid epidemic, Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday, Aug. 22, that more must be done to address the trafficking of heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been linked to a rise in overdose-related deaths.
Baker met privately with nursing groups and academic leaders on Monday at the State House to discuss prescription drug abuse prevention. Afterwards, he said he plans to address the issue of cross-border trafficking with his fellow New England governors next week when they visit Boston for a conference.
“The arrival of fentanyl as a more significant part of this conversation and the reality of fentanyl out on the street is a wrinkle to this process that I think we suspected might end up being part of this, but it came at us in a way that came as a surprise given the volume and the distribution of it, and that’s not just true here in Massachusetts. That’s been true all over the country,” Baker told reporters.
Watch: Baker, Sudders, officials weigh in on opioid epidemic
Fentanyl was confirmed by the Department of Public Health in 66 percent of the 488 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid overdose deaths over the first six months of 2016, up from 57 percent over the same period in 2015.
Despite a higher rate of opioid-related deaths this year, public health officials reported this month that the number of prescriptions for opioids and the number of patients receiving those prescriptions are at their lowest level since the first quarter of 2015.
Baker said he wants to discuss with his fellow governors what is being done to target trafficking of heroin and fentanyl across state lines. All six New England governors will be in Boston next week for the 40th annual Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers.
The governor added that his administration is considering making another request to the Legislature for funding related to these efforts. The governor said he proposed funding in his budget proposal back in January, but it was not included in the final version of the fiscal 2017 state budget.
“Clearly one of the things we’re going to need to do, especially to deal with the fentanyl issue, is to take a harder run at some of the issues around trafficking,” he said.
Baker, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel met Monday morning with leaders from several state nursing groups and academic training centers to discuss their new agreement surrounding core curriculum and competency standards for future providers to deal with opioid therapy and addiction management.
“I think it’s imperative that we upstream teach our future providers to be able to deal with this crisis and allow them every opportunity to be successful at it,” said Sheri Talbott, immediate past president for the Massachusetts Association of Physician Assistants.
The new curriculum will reach the roughly 2,000 nurse practitioner students, 900 enrolled physician assistant students and providers working for the 50 community health centers.
The agreement follows similar pacts struck with the state’s three dental schools and four medical schools over how to train the next generation of health providers to handle the risks associated with prescribing opioids.
“I do believe at this point we are way ahead of where the vast majority of other states are with respect to creating this kind of collaboration and this relationship around core competencies and core curriculum for opioid therapy and addiction management,” Baker said.
The announcement came the same day that the state launched its new prescription monitoring system, MassPAT, which was designed to be easier to use for prescribers with the capability of more readily sharing information with other states.
Sudders said Massachusetts will be immediately sharing prescription data with three of the five other New England states while New Hampshire develops its own prescription monitoring program and Maine implements changes to its system. The state also plans to execute a sharing agreement with New York on Aug. 29, and has reached out to 37 states in total to share information.
Just last week, the Massachusetts Medical Society raised concerns that less than 25 percent of prescribers had registered for the new system, but Sudders said that numbers has continued to grow every day and now totals 31,909 prescribers, or 70 percent.
Bharel said the new system will also make it easier to flag at-risk patients to physicians and share aggregate data with doctors and nurses about how their prescribing practices align with their peers.