When Gov. Charles Baker and I ran for office, the opioid epidemic was not an issue we expected to focus on. But we’ve heard heartbreaking stories from people about loved ones struggling with an opioid-related addiction everywhere we’re gone.
We’ve met parents who planned funerals instead of graduations, and families that suffered when a mother or father became addicted to opioids after a seemingly routine surgery. These tragedies made it clear we needed to act, and our administration has made fighting the opioid and heroin epidemic a top priority since day one.
In Massachusetts, opioids were suspected of killing nearly five times more people in 2015 than those who died in car crashes. From 2011 to 2015, opioid-related emergency department visits in Massachusetts have increased by 87 percent. In Worcester County, we lost nearly 500 people to opioid-related overdose deaths between 2015 and 2016.
Over the last three years, our administration has worked with the Legislature and many stakeholders to fight the epidemic using every tool in the toolbox, including passage of a bipartisan bill that contained the first-in-the-nation prescription limit on first-time opioid prescriptions. Working with colleges and universities, we developed core competencies for pain and addiction for medical students to ensure the next generation of medical professionals have the training to monitor pain management and prevent addiction.
New reforms now require prescribers to check Prescription Monitoring Programs and prevent doctor shopping. Since their implementation, opioid prescriptions have dropped by 28 percent since 2015, and prescribers have conducted nearly seven million searches across the Commonwealth. Our administration has also added more than 1,100 treatment beds, and certified more than 162 sober homes.
While there is still much progress to be made, Massachusetts is beginning to see some positive results. During the first nine months of 2017, there was a 10 percent decline in opioid-related deaths, the first semblance of momentum on this issue in many years.
To build and expand on our progress to address prevention, education and treatment, our administration recently announced a second package to fight the epidemic, including a new bill, the CARE Act, and administrative reforms to be enacted immediately. This package will appropriate $30 million annually in Medicaid money to treat addiction, fund more treatment beds, expand medication-assisted treatment and develop uniform standards for recovery coaches.
We’ve also proposed the creation of a new, $2 million trust fund to expand educational programs in our schools to identify students who are at risk of potential substance use.
In the coming months, we look forward to working with the Legislature to pass the CARE Act and open new channels to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic in the Commonwealth.
While we have seen the rate of prescription opioids and heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths decline, the current fentanyl crisis continues to impact more people nationwide. In Massachusetts, the presence of fentanyl in opioid-related deaths has dramatically increased, from 19 percent in 2014 to 81 percent in 2017. That’s why we filed legislation earlier this year to link state drug classifications to emergency federal drug scheduling, allowing state law enforcement and prosecutors to more effectively respond to the influx of new and dangerous synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil.
We’ve all been witnesses to the devastation caused by this crisis and seen that it’s an epidemic that knows no boundaries. The situation here in the Commonwealth, across New England and throughout the country is too dire for anyone to stand on the sidelines. We need support from all levels of government to fight this public health crisis.
Karyn Polito is the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Worcester’s Holy Name Central Catholic High School, Boston College and the New England School of Law. Ms. Polito is a lifelong resident of Shrewsbury, where she owns and operates a commercial real estate development firm.