In Massachusetts, opioid/heroin addiction is recognized as a disease and a major public-health concern. It caused about 1200 deaths in the state in 2014 and about 1500 deaths and many overdoses in 2015.
The state’s governor, agencies, and legislature have rallied to address the problem in many ways. In March, 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker, a leader on this issue, signed a bill that mandates verbal screenings for schoolchildren, funds more hospital beds for those needing treatment, and limits prescribers of opioids. The new measures to address this behavioral-health epidemic should include substantial involvement of clinical social workers.
Baker, formerly the head of a large private healthcare provider, identified doctors’ over-prescribing as a big part of the problem. “Prescriber education” is therefore a key to prevention, with physicians limited to prescribing a 7-day supply of opioids in initial treatment of adults and a 7-day supply on most opiate prescriptions for minors.
Last year, the Governor’s opioid working group recommended 65 actions for prevention, education, treatment, and recovery. Since then, many new or expanded programs have begun, accompanied by a public-health education campaign on TV and billboards statewide, identifying opioid addiction as a disease that can be successfully treated.
In a recent joint news conference, Baker and Marylou Sudders, Mass. Secretary of Health & Human Services, highlighted upcoming programs. A new electronic data-tracking system will identify high-OD areas to which healthcare assets will be deployed. Starting in October, doctors and dentists must justify the issuing of an opioid prescription. Patients under Medicaid will have their treatment limits doubled to a full 30 days; and in Sept., 2017, students in two grades statewide will be verbally screened for potential drug use.
In addressing the opioid addiction crisis, Governor Baker met with resistance from the Massachusetts Medical Society, whose president, Dr. James Gessner, criticized the proposed limits. “The Governor has taken on the medical community, which is not an easy task”, said Victor DiGravio, CEO of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, a statewide trade group. “But this is a huge problem, and we’re still seeing, on the ground, more demand for treatment than we can offer.”
After the unanimous passage of the recent law, An Act relative to substance use, treatment, education, and prevention, Gessner changed his tune and commended the efforts of the governor, legislature, and agency heads.
Addiction to pain-killers and heroin is a nationwide problem. As Massachusetts takes leadership in addressing it, we will see how clinical social workers’ services can be mobilized to make a difference.