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Hundreds turned out for the final public hearing before Gov. Charlie Baker's opioid abuse task force to share their stories of addiction and recovery as the administration plots a course forward to combat what Baker has called a "crisis" in Massachusetts.
Baker joined Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Attorney General Maura Healey, both leaders of the task force, for the fourth and final public listening session on Thursday as the task force prepares to issues recommendations to the governor in May.
"There are plenty of opportunities for us to do everything that we need to do to make sure people have the access that they need and they deserve to pain medication, but we need to be open and honest with ourselves about the way we all, as a society, think about pain meds with respect to all sides of those issues," Baker told the audience, which had crowded into the State House's Gardner Auditorium.
The Massachusetts State Police this week reported that there had been 217 fatal opioid overdoses in the first three months of 2015, not including data from the state's three largest cities of Boston, Worcester and Springfield.
The Department of Public Health has also reported that in 2013 there were 868 confirmed unintentional opioid overdose related deaths, a number officials expect to grow to 978 when all cases are closed. The total represents a 46 percent increase from the prior year, a rate of death more than two and half times the fatality rate in Massachusetts from car accidents with 371 deaths in 2013.
"That's really all you need to know to understand that it's in fact a crisis," Baker said on Thursday. Citing national statistics, the governor said 80 percent of those addicted to heroin started taking pain medication and marveled at the fact that there are 250 million prescriptions for opioids written each year.
Ann Parkinson, an addict who said she has been sober for 32 years, said her recommendation for policy leaders is to "dismantle the FDA and start research on non-narcotic painkillers." Parkinson noted that at least 48 people have died of overdoses since she first testified before the task force on March 10 in Worcester.
Parkinson also called for drug addiction to be treated like a disease with access for sufferers to a broad array and mental and physical health services, and said the federal government should do more to "stop (heroin) at the border."
Tom Reilly, a Boston College High School and college graduate, said he has been sober for two and half years after becoming addicted to heroin. He has since opened a peer-to-peer, 12-step house in Plympton to help recovering addicts. "I came mostly here today to give hope," Reilly said.
Healey, who has tasked several top deputies in the attorney general's office to go after "pill mills" and doctors easily prescribing opioids to patients, said the state must also encourage safe prescribing practices and educate health care professionals and parents to recognize the signs of addiction and make treatment more accessible.
"We really need to come at this issue from so many different fronts in order to be able to really get at this terrible disease and a lot of people from across industries, across government, local cities, towns, state government are coming together and that's what we should be doing because there's nothing more important than looking out for the health and safety of young people," Healey told reporters before the forum.
Healey noted the State Police found an increasing number of opioid overdoses among women, average age of 35. She said it's something the state hasn't seen before and evidence that addiction is "pernicious and pervasive."
Former Attorney General Martha Coakley returned to the capitol Thursday where she signaled support for her successor's plan to crack down on doctors who over-prescribe opiates.
"Going after doctors who over-prescribe, that is what we need to be doing," Coakley told reporters before meeting with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg alongside other fellows from Harvard's Institute of Politics.
Coakley agrees with Healey that finding offending doctors "is one prong" of many issues the state needs to face about who gets addicted to opiates and why.
"But there is the other piece of 'what are we doing in our criminal justice systems for people who have already been addicted?' Whether because they used it recreationally or they were prescribed it," Coakley said.
"It's a wake-up call both to doctors, for their oversight agencies and to the pharmacy to start to see on their end what can they be doing about preventing this," Coakley said.
Michael Deehan contributed reporting
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