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A united front in the opioid battle


LAST MONTH, one North Shore community was rattled by the news of six heroin overdoses, three of those resulting in death, in just 48 hours. Sadly, this is just more evidence indicating that we are in the midst of an opioid epidemic.

The numbers are staggering. Figures that will be released Tuesday estimate there were 1,008 deaths from opioid overdoses in the Bay State in 2014, a 33 percent jump from 2012. Opioids kill more people in Massachusetts than car accidents and guns combined.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate in the United States, more than double the national rate. In that state, prescription drugs and opioids are major drivers of the drug overdose deaths.


Still, this epidemic isn’t limited to any one state or socioeconomic background. Its tragic impact touches Americans from both rural and urban communities and families from every walk of life. Nationally, drug overdoses have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States. In 2012 alone, 259 million opioid prescriptions were written — enough for every American adult to have a bottle.

The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic requires coordinated and comprehensive action from federal, state, and local leaders. It requires multi-faceted efforts in the area of prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery — and a dedicated focus on public awareness and education.

Fortunately, this is an area where we have significant common ground — and there is strong bipartisan work being done in Massachusetts and across the country to stop the tide and to save lives.

That’s why we are coming together Tuesday to discuss specific, targeted, and tangible recommendations to curb overdose deaths and reduce the rate of addiction in the Commonwealth and nationwide.

The efforts of Massachusetts clearly align with the federal government’s strategy to focus on areas where there will be a significant impact: informing opioid prescribing practices, increasing the use of naloxone, and using medication-assisted treatment.


Altering the trend of prescription opioid abuse must begin by ensuring these powerful medications are prescribed appropriately. Nationally, we are focusing on ensuring that medical professionals have the training and tools they need to make informed prescribing decisions. The Baker Administration has also called on insurers and the medical community to develop a set of best practices for opioid management.

In addition, we believe in the power of electronic prescription tracking programs, which allow pharmacists and providers to share information and can help identify those at risk for dependence, addiction, and overdose. At the federal level, investments are increasing for programs like Massachusetts’ prescription drug monitoring program — a strong example of the potential of federal and state collaboration in this area that is making great progress changing prescribing methods.

We also know that naloxone, a life-saving overdose reversal treatment, is a critical tool in preventing opioid related deaths. That’s why we are providing federal support to states to help get naloxone into the hands of more first responders so they can administer this treatment. Massachusetts passed a law permitting all first responders to carry and administer naloxone, an important step that has already saved hundreds of lives. Expanding the use of medication-assisted treatment, to help more people access the services and treatment they need to move out of addiction and into recovery, is another way we can make a real impact. Not only is this a priority at the federal level, but Massachusetts has shown real progress in this area — integrating Suboxone treatment for addiction and funding 16 qualified community health centers to provide it. Building upon these efforts, the Baker administration convened a working group to identify additional strategies going forward. Their recommendations are due later this spring.


Fighting back against the opioid crisis helps our families, our businesses, our economy, and our communities. With the help of extensive research, evidence-based treatment, and smart partnerships, we can reverse these trends and save lives. We all have a stake in this fight, and we are committed to finding common ground to end the opioid crisis.


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Sylvia M. Burwell is US secretary of health and human services. Charlie Baker is the governor of Massachusetts. Marylou Sudders is the state secretary of health and human services.