Seeking the help of doctors and pharmacists and stepping up outreach to parents and young people are among the strategies being floated by participants in a new regional effort to stem rising opiate addiction.
Four months after being awarded state grant funds, separate coalitions of communities led by Brockton and Quincy have begun plotting how best to use the resources to collectively combat the abuse of opiates — including heroin and prescription narcotics such as oxycodone — that is taking a grim toll in the region.
While their plans will not be finalized until spring, the work of the multi-community partnerships is already having a tangible impact. With the help of the Quincy-led coalition, for instance, Randolph recently established a townwide task force seeking to curb local opiate and other drug abuse, a task force similar to existing groups in the other communities.
“This really opens up a conversation about substance abuse in the Randolph community that had not been there before,” said Susanna Cooper, who is coordinating the Quincy grant program.
Similarly, Whitman, the only community in the Brockton-led coalition that did not have its own community substance abuse group, is now forming one.
Participants are also beginning to consider possible initiatives for the groups. Quincy is teaming with Braintree, Randolph, Stoughton, and Weymouth, while Brockton is working with East Bridgewater, Rockland, and Whitman.
“I think what will bring a more robust response from the region is if we combine our forces to provide education for health care providers,” said Cheryl Cates, Randolph’s public health nurse, citing the role doctors can play in helping to identify and to assist patients with addiction problems.
“What I’m hoping for is that we will be able to put on a conference that will really garner some champions for this issue,” she said.
Lyn Frano, coordinator of the Weymouth Youth Coalition’s substance abuse prevention team, said she would also like to see her regional partnership work closely with the medical community. Noting that New York City now permits its public hospitals to prescribe no more than 72 hours’ worth of narcotic painkillers, she said, “Those are the kinds of policy changes that would be worth discussing” for her region.
Frano suggested the region could encourage pharmacies to use a state electronic network that allows them to detect if someone seeking to fill a prescription might be abusing the drug, noting that her local coalition has spurred pharmacists in Weymouth to adopt that practice.
Brockton and Quincy were each awarded three-year, $300,000 grants to lead the regional coalitions. The grants, among 13 provided by the state through a new Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative Program, came with renewal options that could allow funding for recipients to reach $700,000 over seven years.
The funds are intended to help reduce opiate-related hospitalizations and deaths. The five communities in the Quincy-led group saw an annual average of 226 overdoses — both fatal ones and nonfatal ones requiring hospitalization — in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The four Brockton-led communities saw an average of 141 overdoses, according to state figures.
The Quincy-led group is overseen by the Impact Quincy Coalition, a program of Bay State Community Services that fights substance abuse in Quincy. The Brockton-area coalition is led by the Brockton Mayor’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Coalition.
“It’s been wonderful,” Cooper said of the new collaborations. “Everyone works really well together. They are really willing to step it up, because there is a passion across our cluster to really deal with this issue of opiate abuse.”
Cates said a benefit of the regional collaboration is that older local coalitions can share the lessons they’ve learned with newer ones such as her own.
Stephanie Patton, prevention coordinator for Stoughton OASIS (Organizing Against Substances in Stoughton), said her group has focused on preventing youth from abusing prescription drugs. She said now it will also work on preventing overdoses.
“These are our family members, our neighbors, the people who live in our community,” she said. “We don’t want to lose them.”
Hillary DuBois, coordinator of the Brockton mayor’s coalition, said the new regional partnership in her area is a logical extension of the assistance she has been providing to the substance abuse coalitions formed by East Bridgewater and Rockland in 2011.
“I’ve been working with them since they began. It’s created this natural alliance” that now also includes Whitman, she said.
As required by the grant, the regional coalitions have begun by assessing the extent of the opiate problem and existing services in each community. As part of that effort, both are compiling numerical data and have started or are planning focus groups with targeted populations, including users and their family members.
Also planned are interviews with people such as police chiefs and substance-abuse clinicians who have direct knowledge of the problem.
The regional coalitions are required to report to the state Department of Public Health by Dec. 31 on their research and preliminary findings. Based on the collected information, they will devise strategies to submit to the DPH for approval by next April.
Cooper said one initiative her coalition already plans is to coordinate community prescription drug drop-off events such as the ones held by Quincy, Stoughton, and Weymouth on Oct. 26. She said in the future, all five communities could hold the event on a single day and coordinate data collection and public education about them.
Susan Silva, chairwoman of EB Hope, East Bridgewater’s substance abuse prevention group and the mother of a young man in recovery from heroin addiction, said she would like to see the regional group work on parent education.
“I think that is the one area that is missing a lot,” she said.
Alejandro Rivera, program director of the Impact Quincy Coalition, said that the regional coalition will be particularly interested in initiatives that could sustain themselves even if grant money runs out. As an example, he said that Quincy police have made it a policy to distribute a nasal spray known by its brand name, Narcan, that can undo the effects of an overdose.
Rivera also said he anticipates one strategy would be parent outreach about drug abuse.
“There are a lot of misperceptions about the issue of substance abuse,” he said. As an example, he said there is a mistaken assumption that overdoses are largely confined to low-income people.
“Opiate overdoses occur across all levels, not just in specific neighborhoods,” he said.