|Tuesday, January 6, 2015|
By Amelia Pak-Harvey
LOWELL — As the Lowell region and state grapple with a drug-abuse epidemic, local officials are applauding Attorney General-elect Maura Healey’s plan to create a task force to address the issue.
The internal task force will gather members of the attorney general’s team to tackle opiate- and prescription-drug abuse right as Healey takes office on Jan. 21.
Healey told State House News Service that the issue was a priority for her.
“Listening to the stories of people who came up to me, you can’t help but be moved by it,” she said. “I think there is a public-health crisis, and this has cost families and communities a great deal.”
The group will focus on expanding the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, which allows physicians and pharmacists to share and view a patient’s prescription information.
Healey’s office will work to make the website more user friendly and allow information to be updated in the system in real time. The task force will also work to increase the number of lock-in pharmacy programs. These programs, run through insurers, “lock in” those suspected of prescription abuse to only one pharmacy.
Healey’s first major initiative is only part of an ongoing battle that the Greater Lowell region has been fighting for months. In 2014, Middlesex County had more than 130 fatal drug overdoses.
Rep. Tom Golden, DLowell, worked to secure $200,000 in grant funding for the issue last year. A majority of that money went to local police departments, schools and community groups who help with substance abuse.
Golden said he’s encouraged that Healey is going to make the issue a priority.
“I applaud her for making this one of her first orders of business,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a focus that I think we all need to stay ahead of the curve on.”
Golden is working on legislation that would require doctors to check the Prescription Monitoring Program to ensure nobody is doctor shopping.
“We really need to shut the spigot off of the illegal use of prescriptions because the people that are utilizing prescriptions in the appropriate manner should never be questioned just because there are some folks who are misusing that,” Golden said. “I think the PMP is the number-one way to stem that or to stop that.”
Golden is also considering indemnification for those doctors who do check the PMP, protecting them from possible lawsuits.
“If doctors are truly checking on the wellbeing on all of their patients, I believe they should be indemnified for that,” he said. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who helped form the Lowell Opiate Task Force, said abuse is really a community issue.
“It takes not just law enforcement, but the health care, the schools, the public-health physicians,” she said.
The Lowell task force will have a physician training next month in pain management and the PMP. The state has made strides in the PMP, Ryan said, and her office has been in favor of making it quicker and user-friendly.
“It was much less user friendly when they first started,” Ryan said. “I think they made it much easier to use that program for physicians. They’ve also expanded to allow physicians access for one other person in their office so that it doesn’t fall on the physician to be doing that entry.”
At the Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell, the staff has seen an increase in the number of patients coming in with both mental-health and opiate-abuse issues.
“We treat mentalhealth clients, but more and more of our clients have certainly been affected by dual diagnosis or a co-occurring substance- abuse issue in addition to the mentalhealth issue,” said Brian Maxfield, the association’s clinical director.
The agency recently lost two young women in one of its programs to opiate addiction.
Maxfield said the agency is supportive of Healey’s commitment.
“We’re certainly willing to do whatever we can to be part of that to move forward and help deal with this, with what’s become a terrible issue,” he said.
The Lowell Community Health Center also welcomed the new attorney general’s effort.
“It’s really important that there’s a spectrum of support,” said Linda Sopheap Sou, director of the Teen BLOCK Program at the health center.
Sou, who is one of the chairs of the Substance Use and Prevention Task Force operating under the Greater Lowell Health Alliance, said preventive education for the younger population is still really vital.
“We have data that we collect around substance use, and the areas of concern are still underage drinking and marijuana,” she said. “But we don’t want that to become opiates with young kids.”
2015 lowell sun 01/06/2015