Metro

Opioid bill would require student drug screenings

Governor Charlie Baker sought much tougher legislation to deal with the opioid addiction crisis, but his spokesman said Tuesday that the current bill is “a strong step in the right direction.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2016
Governor Charlie Baker sought much tougher legislation to deal with the opioid addiction crisis, but his spokesman said Tuesday that the current bill is “a strong step in the right direction.

The Legislature is poised to approve a bill this week that would require schools to conduct screenings of students for drug abuse and work to curb opioid use by limiting doctors’ initial prescriptions to seven days.

Parents and students would have the ability to opt out of the screen, which would come in the form of a confidential interview with children at two still-to-be-determined grade levels.

The long-awaited legislation, the product of a compromise between House and Senate negotiators, is Beacon Hill’s latest response to an opioid scourge that leaves about 100 Massachusetts residents dead every month.

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The measure is not as far-reaching as a proposal made by Governor Charlie Baker last fall. But his office offered praise for the legislation Tuesday night.

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“Governor Baker appreciates the Legislature’s work on this bill, which takes a strong step in the right direction,” said Lizzy Guyton, a spokeswoman for the governor, in a written statement, adding later, “moving forward, the administration is committed to collaborating with the Legislature, law enforcement, and treatment providers to continue fighting this public health crisis.”

The opioid scourge has become an urgent priority for government officials across the country, bedeviling lawmakers from New Hampshire to Washington state in recent years and seeping into the 2016 presidential race.

Baker has made tackling the issue a top priority. And the legislation that emerged Tuesday night counts as a partial victory.

In October, the governor called for a tight, three-day limit on initial opioid prescriptions. But the proposal ran into stiff opposition from the Massachusetts Medical Society and other prominent medical groups, which argued it interfered too much with the doctor-patient relationship.

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Lawmakers are in position to approve a seven-day limit instead, with exceptions for acute medical conditions, chronic pain, pain associated with cancer diagnoses, and palliative care. That compromise drew praise from Dennis Dimitri, president of the Medical Society, who said Baker’s proposed three-day limit “could really be detrimental” to patients trying “to get adequate pain medications.”

The governor also wanted to give hospitals new authority to hold addicts against their will for 72 hours, evaluate them, and decide whether to seek legal permission for substantially longer commitments.

Critics raised civil liberties concerns and maintained that the state does not have enough treatment beds to accommodate the spike in patients the policy might create. Legislators dropped the 72-hour hold proposal and swapped in a measure requiring an evaluation, within 24 hours, of anyone who arrives at an acute care hospital with signs of an overdose.

Lawmakers say the opioid problem is complex. And the bill, set for a vote in the House on Wednesday and in the Senate on Thursday, takes a wide-ranging approach, touching pharmaceutical companies, doctors, patients, and students.

State Senator Jennifer Flanagan, a Leominster Democrat who pushed for the school screenings, said her measure and the provision requiring an evaluation for those who show up at hospitals with signs of an overdose would create “some new entry points into treatment that we didn’t have before.”

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Another provision of the bill would allow patients to partially fill their prescriptions — declining to take the full number of pills prescribed by their doctors.

‘I honestly think it has the capability to make a profound impact on people’s lives. . . . We’re engaging the entire health care ecosystem.’

Senator Karen Spilka, Democrat of Ashland 

The legislation would also require pharmaceutical companies to develop plans for the collection and disposal of unwanted medications. Such plans could include, among other things, drug mail-back programs and more kiosks where patients can drop off medications they do not need.

Lawmakers across the country have struggled to contain the opioid crisis. But Massachusetts legislators said Tuesday night that they are optimistic the new bill, if passed as expected, can have a real effect.

“I honestly think it has the capability to make a profound impact on people’s lives,” said state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee. “With this bill, we’re engaging the entire health care ecosystem.”

Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement that the legislation includes “significant new policies that will help to fight the opioid epidemic impacting all corners of the Commonwealth.”

The legislation released Tuesday night was a blend of proposals from the House and the Senate. If lawmakers approve the measure, it would go to Baker for his signature.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.