WALTHAM — Five New England governors agreed Tuesday to work across state borders to address a surge in drug overdoses, promising to better monitor the prescription of opioid painkillers and to expand access to addiction treatment.
Following private talks at Brandeis University, the governors said they would explore sharing prescription data on a broad scale, in part to curb “doctor shopping” by patients and small-time drug dealers who skirt prescription limits by visiting multiple physicians.
The region’s chief executives, minus only Governor Paul LePage of Maine, said they would push for mandatory registration in the Prescription Monitoring Program, a growing, online database doctors can check for the prescription histories of individual patients.
“There’s just no doubt in my mind that the single thing that can undermine our quality of life as a region is addiction to opiates,” said Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont, who devoted his entire State of the State address this year to the opiate scourge in his state.
Connecticut’s governor, Dannel P. Malloy, echoed Shumlin’s concern about the abuse and misuse of powerful opioids, which are generally prescribed to ease pain but are sometimes diverted by family members and criminals for nonmedical purposes.
‘‘People get introduced to a drug and enjoy the use of that product, and that in many cases leads to doctor or clinic shopping,’’ Malloy said. ‘‘And that shopping doesn’t necessarily honor state borders.’’
The governors pledged to forge agreements among state Medicaid programs to allow patients to cross borders for drug-abuse treatment. Under that plan, if one state does not have beds immediately available for treatment, an addict in desperate need of help could turn to other New England states.
“Everybody has a stake in helping people recover and helping people heal,” said Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who convened the meeting.
“How do we work together so that we move people who are addicted into recovery?” Shumlin asked.
This regional collaboration is the most active, focused effort to combat opioid abuse by neighboring governors in the United States, said John Eadie, director of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Center of Excellence, a Brandeis program that seeks to end prescription drug abuse.
The center will help the governors find ways to put their proposals into place, Eadie said, aided by federal funds to study data from each state’s prescription monitoring program. Eadie said the center also will work to develop an early warning system to identify communities at risk for heroin abuse.
New England has been hit hard by opioid overdoses and related deaths since late last year. In Massachusetts, more than 200 people have died since November. Patrick declared a public health emergency in March and announced a $20 million plan last week to expand treatment and other substance-abuse services.
“While we are all addressing opioid addiction independently, we feel we would be better off doing so collaboratively,” Patrick said.
The governors agreed to form a working group composed of high-level state officials to build the framework for sharing prescription data and to make treatment more accessible. Its recommendations will be due at the end of September, Patrick said.
New Hampshire’s governor, Maggie Hassan, said her state is using federal money to bring its prescription monitoring program online. Opioid abuse, she said, “strains our families. It hurts the productivity of our workers. It’s undermining the safety of our communities. . . . We need to work together across boundaries, across silos.”
In Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chafee’s administration has used a broad government response to address a sharp rise in overdoses and deaths.
Maine’s LePage, who is focusing on law enforcement instead of treatment to crack down on the opioid problem, remained in his state to meet with veterans seeking jobs and to release 2013 data that showed a decrease in crime.
“Those were a higher priority than a photo op with other New England governors,” said Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, the only Republican among the region’s governors.
The five governors at Brandeis said they planned to reach out to their eastern Canadian counterparts in an effort to include them in a transnational partnership. “Their border and our border are pretty wide open,” Malloy said.
The recommendations are steps in the right direction, said Dr. Daniel Alford, director of the Safe and Competent Opioid Prescribing Education program, based at Boston University School of Medicine. But, he added, better data sharing should be complemented by physicians talking to each other.
“The more we can share data across systems, it makes sense, obviously,” Alford said. “It just shouldn’t stop with you need to register and you need to check. This is the third piece: You still need to call the previous doc and get information.”
Shumlin described the Brandeis roundtable as a beginning, and said New England governors will continue to explore ways to collaborate beyond the initial steps of data sharing and making treatment more widely available.
“What we’re saying as governors is that the sky is the limit,” Shumlin said.