An estimated 978 people died of opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts in 2013 — 46 percent more than the year before. Overdose deaths were more than twice as common as deaths from car and truck crashes.
With these startling numbers displayed behind him Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker announced his first step to tackle the state’s opioid addiction crisis: appointing a 16-member working group to hold public meetings, assess the resources devoted to the problem, and submit “specific, targeted, and tangible recommendations” by May.
The working group will be led by Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Attorney General Maura Healey, and include people working in government, law enforcement, and addiction treatment.
The move was welcomed by the addiction and recovery community.
Although other assessments have been done over the years, the governor can benefit from learning about it “with fresh eyes,” said Maryanne Frangules, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, an association of people in recovery and their friends and relatives.
“He probably needs to hear for himself how difficult it is to get into treatment,” she said.
Nancy Paull, chief executive of the SSTAR treatment center in Fall River, cheered the decision to hold public forums, saying it will combat the stigma and shame that continue to surround addiction. “But we need more resources,” she said. “That needs to happen at the same time.”
Vic DiGravio, president of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, a trade group of treatment providers, said he was heartened by Baker’s choice of high-level officials to lead the group, the inclusion of savvy addiction-treatment professionals, and the decision to set a firm deadline for action.
“A new governor and new secretary deserve some time to look at the issue through their own lens,” DiGravio said.
In an interview shortly after his election last year, Baker named opioid addiction as a priority for his administration. But the repeated snowstorms forced Thursday’s announcement to be rescheduled four times.
Baker said that, as a candidate, he was struck by how often addiction came up in conversations with voters. “I was really surprised how many people told me stories related to opioid addiction,” he said at Thursday’s announcement at Hope House, a drug addiction treatment program in Roxbury. “I said, ‘You know, this is more than just anecdote, there’s something deeper going on here.’ ”
Sudders said the new group would get to work in two weeks. The first of four public forums will be March 10 in Worcester. The schedule will be posted on www.mass.gov/opioids, and comments will be accepted online as well.
“I recognize that there are no quick fixes and that we have lots to do,” Sudders said.
Baker is also asking insurers to follow the lead of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts and establish a program addressing the use of powerful prescription painkillers that can lead to addiction. In two years, Blue Cross cut claims for short-acting opioids such as Vicodin and Percocet by 25 percent and for long-acting opioids such as OxyContin by 50 percent.
Blue Cross worked with a panel of experts to establish best practices for treating pain patients, such as assessing them for risk of addiction and setting up treatment plans that include drugs that are not narcotics. The insurer also informed doctors if their patients were receiving narcotics from another physician.
“These medications can provide great relief for many patients, including those tormented by debilitating chronic pain or suffering in their last days of life,” Baker said in a statement. “But we need to make sure prescribing is appropriate.”
Baker called on doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, and others who prescribe opioids to consult the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, a database that reveals if a patient is obtaining drugs from more than one prescriber or pharmacy. A new law requires them to check the monitoring program but fewer than half are doing so, Sudders said.
Dr. Richard S. Pieters, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement that “physicians are ready to assist” the governor’s efforts but noted that “more than three out of four people who abuse prescription drugs use drugs prescribed to someone else.”
Thursday’s announcements included the release of county-specific data from the drug monitoring program. The data show how many people obtain prescriptions from more than one prescriber and then fill them at more than one pharmacy — defined as “concerning behavior” that could indicate abuse. Plymouth County had the highest rate of people with “concerning behavior,” followed by Bristol and Barnstable counties. The lowest rates were in Hampshire and Nantucket counties.
Sudders said that 868 overdose deaths had been confirmed in 2013, but additional confirmations are expected, resulting in a projected 978 overdose deaths. That is three times the number in 2000.
Baker, who pledged to produce quarterly data on overdoses, said the 2014 death toll would be available in April.
“In addition to lives lost,” Sudders said, “our hospitals are experiencing an overwhelming number of people who require hospital stays or trips to emergency departments” to treat overdoses. In 2013, there were 2,008 hospital stays and 4,570 emergency department visits related to overdoses.
Felice J. Freyer can be reached at email@example.com.