Now is not the time for Governor Charlie Baker to slash funding for substance abuse treatment in Massachusetts.
In 2015, there were 1,574 confirmed accidental opioid deaths, a 20 percent increase over the previous year’s 1,383. As of September, the state’s opioid epidemic claimed another 1,005 people, with an additional estimated, or unconfirmed, 392 to 470 deaths. With an average 100 deaths every month, this year’s numbers are on pace to set another grim record for the state, a record which has been topped every year since 2012.
Yet Baker, who is unilaterally cutting $98 million from the state budget to close a shortfall, is slashing more than $1.9 million from the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS) for programs related to drug treatment and recovery. Affected services include a Shrewsbury substance abuse clinic for veterans ($50,000); a Tewksbury opiate recovery facility ($200,000); and Wakefield’s purchase of Narcan, a life-saving opiate antidote ($25,000).
Compared to other areas, such as education and schools, which suffered a $12 million cut, $1.9 million might not seem exorbitant. Yet it comes at a time when opioid deaths continue to soar nationwide. In 2015, more people died from heroin-related causes than gun homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Less than a decade ago, gun homicides were five times higher than heroin deaths.
Few doubt Baker’s commitment to fighting the state’s opioid epidemic. Shortly after he was elected, in November 2014, Baker told the Globe the crisis would be “a big issue for me, I’ll tell you that.” Last March, he signed what he called “the most comprehensive measure in the country to combat opioid addiction.” Tearing up at a signing ceremony attended by many who’ve lost loved ones to substance abuse, Baker said, “May today’s bill passage signal to you that the Commonwealth is listening and we will keep fighting for all of you.”
What signal is Baker now sending with these recent cuts?
Last year, the estimated rate of unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts was 25.8 per 100,000. That’s the highest in state history, and a 32 percent increase from 2014. While heroin deaths are down, there’s a sharp rise in deaths from fentanyl, a synthetic opiate about 50 times more powerful than heroin. This crisis is evolving, not abating.
As merciless as it is incessant, opioid addiction is laying waste to families and communities from Boston to the Berkshires. Baker has made strides in trying to curb the epidemic, but at this tenuous moment, the state can ill afford even a modest retreat in programs for substance abuse prevention, treatment, and recovery. The governor should rescind his cuts, and reaffirm that, in his state, this insidious epidemic will be given no quarter.