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Baker highlights opioid addiction toll on veterans

Governor Charlie Baker Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

GARDNER — Governor Charlie Baker, calling opioid addiction among veterans a “hugely important” issue, pledged Thursday at a center for homeless and disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to keep his administration focused on ways to curb the epidemic.

“We feel there is a tremendous lack of understanding about what’s going on,” Baker said at a roundtable discussion on the raging opioid crisis, which was linked to more than 1,000 deaths in Massachusetts last year.

The state’s veterans have been hard hit by the indiscriminate scourge of opioid addiction, he said.

“They’re dealing with many of the same issues that the rest of the population is,” Baker said at the Northeast Veteran Training and Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit program that provides housing, counseling, and education.

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Last week, residents of a Boston center for homeless veterans said three men had died there of opioid overdoses in the past several weeks. The residents blamed a brisk marketplace for drugs just outside the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, near City Hall, and an inability to protect veterans inside the facility from an influx of drugs.

As a candidate in 2014, the governor said, he did not set out to make opioid addiction one of the top priorities of his administration. But the issue surfaced over and over in painful conversations with residents across the state, he recalled.

“It became very clear to me that this was everywhere,” Baker said.

To improve testing and treatment, Baker said he would explore whether the state could buy drug-testing kits in bulk and then offer them at discounted prices to organizations such as the Northeast Veteran center, which screens its residents. Such a plan would need legislative approval, the governor said.

Leslie Lightfoot, the founder of the center, which relies almost exclusively on donations, said the facility would see dramatic savings under such a program and would be able to test clients for a wider range of drugs.

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Baker on Thursday received the backing of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association for proposed legislation that would, among other initiatives, limit the number of opioid painkillers a physician could include in a patient’s first prescription.

Abuse of painkillers often is cited as a gateway to opioid addiction and the use of heroin. The bill also would allow medical professionals to order patients committed to substance-abuse treatment if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

“The epidemic of opiate addiction and overdose can’t be solved by law enforcement alone,” said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “In the face of a problem this large and complex, any sound strategy must be a shared strategy.”

The immense scope of the crisis was underscored at the roundtable by Coleman Nee, secretary of veterans’ services under Governor Deval Patrick. Nee said the families of veterans must be better integrated into treatment and support services to give addicts a greater chance at recovery.

Lightfoot, the Northeast Veteran founder, argued that smaller and more secure treatment programs are essential to help addicted veterans and other substance abusers. Currently, she said, many veterans do not receive long-term attention and often end up back on the street — or dead.

At Northeast, veterans must have been sober for a year before they are allowed to live with their families among the 20 homes, each with two bedrooms, on a 10-acre campus in Gardner.

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The center is the first housing facility in the country that serves wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with a broad array of physical, occupational and therapeutic services, Lightfoot said.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.