Panel Finalizes Recommendations To Ease Drug Abuse

A state panel charged with finding ways to address Massachusetts' drug abuse epidemic is set to finalize its recommendations for Gov. Deval Patrick this week.

The 36-member Opiate Task Force, which includes mayors, state officials and health care providers, is charged with recommending how to spend $20 million designated to improve substance abuse treatment programs across the state. It meets Wednesday.

Patrick issued an executive order in March declaring drug abuse a public health emergency. He also attempted to ban Zohydro, a powerful hydrocodone-based painkiller, and he expanded the availability of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opioid overdose.

Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett, who chairs the task force, says the panel's recommendations will include short- and long-term solutions covering a broad range of categories, from better prevention education to faster, more "real-time" data on overdoses.

She declined to name specific recommendations but suggested that expanding use of the state's Prescription Monitoring Program, an online database where a licensed prescriber or pharmacist can view a patient's prescription history, would be among them.

Joanne Peterson, founder of Learn to Cope, a support group for families dealing with drug addiction, said Massachusetts must invest more in affordable residential programs for people in the early stages of addiction recovery, such as those recently completing detoxification programs. She also suggested the state invest more in services for the growing number of female addicts.

"It's very easy to relapse in an environment with no structure. They need counseling and support," Peterson said. "We've been advocating for this stuff for years. We're more hopeful now. The governor is taking the right steps."

State officials say the annual number of unintentional opiate overdoses has nearly doubled in recent years, from 338 in 2000 to 668 in 2012. They say preliminary data for 2013 suggests fatal overdoses are on track to meet or exceed 2012's totals.

Among the causes for the rise are an increase in pain medication prescriptions and more availability of cheap heroin, both in pure and adulterated versions, according to officials.

State regulatory boards have already issued stricter requirements to doctors, dentists and pharmacists who prescribe and dispense Zohydro, which public health officials have said can be easily abused in its current form.

The restrictions come after Patrick's attempt to ban the drug outright was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. Zogenix, the San Diego-based maker of the drug, is challenging the restrictions in federal court.

Senate leaders have also introduced legislation to address the drug abuse epidemic.


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