The state House of Representatives has backed a proposal to start offering medication-assisted treatment to some prisoners and to people civilly committed for addiction treatment.
The House voted unanimously late Wednesday to adopt its own version of Governor Charlie Baker’s legislation to address the opioid crisis, adding an amendment from Worcester Representative James J. O’Day that goes partway toward meeting the entreaties of advocates for addicted inmates.
It remains uncertain whether the provision will become law. The Senate still needs to act on Baker’s opioid bill, and the two chambers need to reconcile their versions in time to send the legislation to the governor’s desk by July 31.
Currently most jails and all prisons in Massachusetts deny inmates access to the main medications used to treat opioid addiction — methadone and buprenorphine (often known by a trade name, Suboxone). This leaves addicted inmates at extremely high risk of fatal overdoses when they return to the streets.
A coalition of 26 health care groups had urged the Legislature to require all prisons and jails to offer the medications to opioid-addicted inmates.
The amendment adopted in the House on Wednesday takes a step in that direction. It would create a pilot program at six facilities — five prisons (not specified) and a treatment program for civilly committed men that is run by the Department of Correction.
Under the plan, the six facilities would provide buprenorphine or methadone to inmates who were already taking the medication immediately before incarceration. Two of the prisons and the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center would also start the medications for willing inmates if an addiction specialist determines the drugs are medically necessary.
The Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, in Plymouth, is a treatment center for men committed under Section 35, the state law that empowers a judge to force an addicted person into treatment. At the Plymouth facility, patients live in a prison-like setting and do not have access to buprenorphine or methadone, as they would at most other treatment facilities.
Section 35 is also addressed in a separate amendment to the House bill, proposed by Representative Denise C. Garlick, a Norfolk Democrat. The measure would establish a commission to study the efficacy of involuntary commitment for addiction treatment.