Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on Feb. 19, 2016.
Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas says he and other municipal officials should be on the front line of the fight against the growing opioid epidemic in Massachusetts.
“Every municipality in the commonwealth, whether people want to realize this or not, has an issue,” said Dumas, who helped lead a special task force looking for successful programs the state’s cities and towns have used to fight opioid addiction.
“(Municipal leaders) need to be the people that are on the front line, taking this issue head-on. We have to be providing the resources for prevention and be advocates to get those resources,” Dumas said in an interview about a report released last month by the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
The report included a list of the 10 “best-practices” local governments should follow to manage opioid abuse.
Former Gov. Deval Patrick declared opioid addiction a public health emergency in 2014, and Gov. Charlie Baker has made it a major focus of his administration.
Over the past three years, at least 258 of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns have lost residents to a fatal opioid overdose, according to the association report.
In 2014, there were an estimated 1,256 opioid overdose fatalities across the state, the most recent year figures were available and the highest number ever recorded in Massachusetts.
The municipal association report drew from local programs and practices that have been successful in increasing public awareness and prevention of opioid addiction, made resources accessible to families and addicts and used non-traditional police and hospital practices geared more toward support and rehabilitation, and less to criminal prosecution.
He said the group spent 18 months surveying programs across Massachusetts to collect ideas and resources that could become tools for other cities and towns.
“If we could replicate a program easily, then that’s something that could be opened up to any municipality,” he said.
One example is an Attleboro police initiative that works to de-stigmatize opioid addiction and encourage users to seek help.
The Attleboro Police Department’s problem-oriented police team builds relationships with known heroin and opioid addicts to persuade them to seek treatment, Police Chief Kyle Heagney said.
“Every time there’s an addict (who) overdoses in the city, the problem-oriented policing team goes and pays a visit to the addict and offers counseling services and treatment,” Heagney said. “They’ll actually drive them to treatment. It’s not a law enforcement visit.
“They’re there because they care, and they want to see them be healthier citizens.”
The approach has been embraced by surrounding towns taking Attleboro’s lead.
Although state Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, said the report is a useful tool for municipalities, he noted it failed to address what he said is the cause of the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts: over-prescription of the drugs.
“The one thing that I’d say it is missing is the cause of this epidemic,” Heroux said. “And the cause is basically the over-prescribing of opioids by doctors.”
An opioid bill moving through the Legislature that would limit the number of initial narcotic painkiller doses a doctor can prescribe per patient remains in conference committee, where members have spent five weeks trying to find a compromise over differences in House and Senate proposals.
Heroux said the House bill would also require doctors to document their reasons behind each opiate prescription, in hope those records can help identify patterns in the over-prescribing of painkillers.
Heagney said the municipal association’s report was only an initial step. The prime issue of providing enough services remains to be addressed, he said.
“I commend the MMA for recognizing the need to study the problem and come up with viable solutions, but on-and-after this report I still believe that we need to adequately have treatment accessible,” he said. “That’s a roadblock right now.
“There isn’t enough counseling. There aren’t enough treatment centers. It takes a considerable amount of resources to treat an addict.”
Dumas said he hopes the report will provide a framework of resources for municipalities and individuals dealing with the opioid epidemic who might feel they have no place to turn.
“To listen to how much it means to somebody that you can provide or find services for a family that has to cope with this issue, it gets very personal,” Dumas said. “This discussion needs to be alive, and it’s certainly going to be our goal to continue to talk about this.”