Baker hears emotional stories at meeting on addiction
BOSTON (AP) — Recovering heroin addicts, relatives of overdose victims and treatment specialists relayed emotional stories Thursday to Gov. Charlie Baker and other top state officials as they weighed possible solutions for the state’s deadly heroin and prescription drug abuse crisis.
Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Attorney General Maura Healey joined members of the Opioid Crisis Working Group for the panel’s fourth and final public hearing, held in a crowded Statehouse auditorium. The governor, who has called the overdose epidemic a public health emergency, formed the group in February and has asked it to make recommendations by the fall.
State police reported on Wednesday that 217 people died as a result of suspected heroin overdoses around Massachusetts during the first three months of 2015, figures that did not include the state’s three largest cities: Boston, Worcester and Springfield.
There were 978 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2013, the last full year statistics were available, according to the state health department.
As Baker listened intently, speakers often struggled to maintain their composure while sharing personal experiences.
Delaney Tivnan, 14, of Medford, said her father, Derek, fatally overdosed in November 2013.
“He was a brother, uncle, cousin, bother-in-law, son and most importantly, my dad,” said Tivnan.
Her father had loving parents with strong morals, she said, but met up with the wrong people and made bad decisions.
“Being a drug addict was not what my father chose for himself,” she said.
A shortage of beds in detox centers and difficulty in obtaining insurance coverage for treatment were among the themes often cited by speakers, along with the stigma attached to addiction that keeps some people from seeking help.
Jack Kelly, of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, said political consultants urged him to downplay his own past drug addiction during his unsuccessful campaign for the city council in 2013. He ignored their advice.
“I was not going to tone down who I was,” said Kelly. “I told everybody I was a recovering heroin addict.”
Barbara O’Brien, 16, of East Bridgewater, broke down as she described the toll her older brother’s heroin addiction had taken on her family, and how her mother would often go out at night to try to find him.
“There were nights I would cry because I didn’t know where my brother was,” O’Brien said. He finally went to Florida for treatment and was improving, she added.
At the outset of the meeting, Baker cited national statistics that 80 percent of heroin addicts started on prescription pain medication, and that 250 million such prescriptions were written in the country each year.
“There are plenty of opportunities for us to do everything we need to do to make sure that people have the access they need and deserve to pain medication,” Baker said. “But we need to be open and honest with ourselves about the way we as a society think about pain medicine.”
Healey, the attorney general, has suggested a number of steps including an expansion of the state’s prescription drug monitoring program so doctors and pharmacists can identify at-risk patients.
“Everybody needs to be at the table because every day people are dying in this state,” she said. “Not just (overdosing), but dying.”