BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) — As the number of opiate-related deaths across the state continues to climb, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency Thursday that gives the Department of Public Health emergency powers to combat the epidemic.
The declaration enables DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett to universally permit first responders to carry and administer Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, that when administered can reverse an overdose and save someone’s life.
Families with loved ones who are addicts will also be able to access Narcan more easily with prescriptions, so they have the drug in their homes in the event of an overdose, state health officials said.
In the past few months, at least 140 people have died in Massachusetts from drug overdoses, a number Patrick called unprecedented.
“We have right now an opiate epidemic, so I will treat this like the public health crisis that it is,” Patrick said during a press conference at the Department of Public Health office Thursday afternoon.
Patrick said he met Wednesday with families with someone in recovery and those who have lost someone to addiction. He described them as sharing powerful stories of love and loss.
Appearing with the governor, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said the courts are full of people with drug addictions.
“In terms of the courts, we can’t do it alone,” she said. “We are now seeing increased volumes of individuals who are coming into our courts really at a level that is unprecedented.”
She described courtrooms as being turned into emergency rooms and court officers acting like triage doctors.
The number of parents who come to court to have their drug-addicted children civilly committed “because they are at their wit’s end and they don’t know what to do,” is rapidly on the rise, Carey said.
Under the declaration, issued under a general law governing the “maintenance of public health,” DPH will immediately prohibit prescribing and dispensing any hydrocodone-only formulation, commonly known as Zohydro, until it is determined measures are in place to safeguard against overdose, misuse and diversion. Other states are contemplating similar moves, according to Bartlett.
“Zohydro is a potentially lethal narcotic painkiller, depending on whether or not it’s ingested quickly, swallowed right away,” Patrick said.
The drug is not tamper-proof, Patrick said, meaning it is easily crushed and redistributed.
Zogenix Inc., a California-based drug company that manufactures Zohydro, describes its use “for the management of pain severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate.”
A spokeswoman for the company could not be immediately reached for comment.
Earlier this week, Patrick sent letters to Congressman Stephen Lynch and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in support of efforts at the federal level to ban Zohydro. Patrick expressed concerns about the potential for the drug to be easily abused and worsen opiate abuse in Massachusetts.
Families affected by addiction have raised the level of attention among state policymakers, Patrick said. When speaking to families, Patrick said he was struck by the “hit or miss nature” in the way people find recovery services that work for them.
Patrick is also dedicating $20 million to beef up budgets at substance abuse treatment programs. The money is being redirected from other DPH budget line items, and does not need legislative approval, according to a Patrick spokeswoman, who nonetheless said Patrick will seek lawmakers’ approval.
DPH will also mandate that physicians and pharmacies use prescription drug monitoring to prevent abuse and misuse. This is currently a voluntary program. Patrick said there must be more rigor around overprescribing, which often leads to addiction.
Other directives include requiring an expanded Interagency Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention to make recommendations in 60 days on further actions that can be taken; and issuance of a public health advisory to educate the public about opioid addiction treatment options.
Bartlett told the News Service the public health declaration is not often used, and she feels it is time to take the action. “I totally support the governor doing this. I feel this is an amazing opportunity to address a nationwide problem,” Bartlett said.
In the past few months she has met with police chiefs, district attorneys, and mayors. “It is starting to hit every single community,” Bartlett said, adding to heightened awareness around the problem.
The drug-related death toll has ticked up unabated across the state. In Taunton, six deaths connected to opiate overdoses occurred since Jan. 1; Woburn has had eight; and on Cape Cod there have been nearly 20 deaths.
The spike in heroin and opioid overdose death has triggered increased attention on substance abuse and treatment on Beacon Hill and on the campaign trail. Joe Avellone, a Democrat running for governor, has called for the creation of a state Office of Recovery, for instance, and other candidates have tried to appeal to voters by outlining their plans to tackle the problem.
Thanking the governor for his declaration, Attorney General candidate Warren Tolman on Thursday highlighted his own plan, released last week, to “enforce behavioral health offerings, take illicit painkillers off our streets, improve education on painkillers, stand up to Big Pharma, and be a voice for progress on combating opiate abuse.”
Making the announcement, Patrick was flanked by Carey, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz, Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral, District Court Judge Rosemary Minihan, and Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Public Health.
“These are critical steps that not only should be taken, but must be taken. The suffering has gone on too long,” Keenan said during the press conference.
Keenan said the Legislature is also working to combat the problem.
In January the Senate formed a special committee to study drug addiction and treatment options in Massachusetts with a focus on the civil commitment process to address what Senate President Therese Murray described epidemic of opiate addiction in Massachusetts.
Murray testified before that panel on Tuesday in her hometown of Plymouth. Since 1999 the state has seen a 47 percent increase in overdose deaths, according to Murray.
“In the few months since the Senate created this special committee, it has become clear that we are not just experiencing rising levels of drug addiction in Massachusetts; we are knee deep in an epidemic,” Murray said, according to her prepared remarks. “This is a public health crisis and a public safety crisis. It is a debilitating problem that reaches to every corner of our state and is damaging the future of the Commonwealth. A family ruined by addiction or a young person found unresponsive with a syringe by their side is no longer a rarity; it is the new normal.”