Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey are taking state government in a new direction when it comes to how it deals with opiate addiction. After years of the War on Drugs and a pervasive "throw away the key attitude" among some critics of recovery treatment, Baker and Healey want addiction to opiates to be treated as a disease rather than a crime.
The culture shift was a key finding of a task force Baker charged with coming up with solutions to the drug problem when he took office.
The task force recommends dozens of ways to reshape the battle against opiates, including prevention programs in schools, regulations on pharmacies and greater access to overdose medication. The state also hopes to partner with a pharmacy chain to start a take-back program for prescription drugs.
"We are not going to arrest or incarcerate our way out of this," Healey said at a Monday press conference with Baker and the rest of the task force. "This is a disease. This is a public health crisis and we must treat it and address it as such."
Baker said many addictions begin when patients legally prescribed opiates for pain treatment become addicted. Many of the panel's recommendations would place greater restrictions on doctors and pharmacies that provide addictive pain medication.
Some of the recommendations are minor policy changes or attempts to streamline existing services. Others are major shifts in how government treats addicts. The task force wants to enroll some uninsured addicts into state and federally-subsidized health care program to let them seek treatment and to begin a pilot program allowing walk-in access to clinicians at some community health centers.
Healey called the recommendations "a roadmap to comprehensively addressing this public health crisis and offering help to families who truly need it," in the same statement. Healey thanked Baker and his team, but said the real work now begins to implement changes that will affect the epidemic.
The task force also says there should be public reports on how the implementation of the plan is working. Some of the recommendations will need funding from the legislature or the federal government before they can go into operation.
Baker's administration wants to offer multiple points of entry to treatment and acknowledges that each addict's case is different. The recommendations call for the certification of sober houses and greater enforcement of rules allowing addicts undergoing methadone treatment to live in them.
"Let me make one thing perfectly clear here. Opioid addiction is a healthcare issue that knows no boundaries across age, race, class or demographics," Baker said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Baker's top health adviser, compared opiate addiction to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
“The solution requires a strong public health approach focusing on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery," Sudders said in a statement preceding the task force findings announcement. "We must also target education and awareness about the potential misuse of opioids to students and their families."
The report is the result of four months of work from a panel of health experts, law enforcement officials and policy leaders. Sudders headed up the task force, which also included Healey, Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter, addiction experts, Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald and AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman.