Six New England governors called on health care professionals Tuesday to work with government officials to combat the opioid epidemic and control prescriptions, describing a grim reality of addiction across the region they govern.
“There is not an issue more pressing I know for all of us at this table,” said Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, addressing an audience at Harvard Medical School. “We are losing good people to the opioid crisis that is sweeping across America, and we need your help.”
The governors spoke on a broad range of state initiatives to combat opioid addiction, which they characterized as a public health crisis.
While the governors largely agreed about ways to tackle the epidemic, they expressed varying degrees of optimism about stemming the opioid crisis, which takes thousands of lives each year in New England.
The governors, who convened for a panel, emphasized that medical experts should help determine painkiller regulations, such as the initial prescription limit or the maximum number of pills that can be administered after a procedure.
Shumlin directly addressed the audience, comprising mostly health care professionals, asking how many of them gave out prescriptions.
“You all as prescribers have the key to the solution of this problem,” he said. “You have the power, not us.”
Governor Paul LePage of Maine said his state has focused on the illegal sale of opioids and “beefed up our law enforcement ... trying to get the traffickers off the streets.” Additionally, LePage said Maine has “drug courts” that allow some addicts with a criminal history to choose between jail or a treatment facility — an approach LePage described as “tough love.”
Shumlin criticized the Food and Drug Administration for its recent approval of OxyContin, which treats moderate to severe pain, for children.
“The facts are, we are passing out OxyContin like candy,” Shumlin said.
Governor Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut said his state and its physicians should pay more attention to fentanyl, a narcotic that treats severe pain. And Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island emphasized the need to dispel stereotypes about who the opioid epidemic impacts.
“A lot of people, at least where I am from, still see this as an issue which is relatively confined to a certain kind of person,” she said. “There is still a stigma. Junkies, drug users, addicts.”
Several states in New England already participate in a program that works across state lines to monitor how many and what types of prescriptions are filled. But the governors pledged to do more to control prescriptions.
Governor Charlie Baker, who has worked in the health care industry, said he recently talked with medical school students about the importance of speaking up about public health issues.
He said he had felt frustrated when he was campaigning for governor because only then did he learn from families — not from medical professionals — about the severity of the opioid epidemic.
Though Baker said the state has made some progress, he added more needs to be done.
“We, as a country, need to be more aggressive,” he said after the panel.
Still, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan said, she and other governors have “pushed very hard, and sometimes made people uncomfortable” with their efforts.
Thousands of people in New England die from opioid overdoses each year, and in Massachusetts alone more than 1,300 people died in 2015, according to the state Health Department.
Jenelle Paolini, director of clinical operations of Boston PainCare, said overall she thought the panel was helpful but warned against oversimplifying how physicians treat their patients.
Sometimes, she said, it is not feasible to reduce prescriptions for people who use them for chronic pain.
“It is just very time-consuming and very difficult to do,” she said.