New Law Aimed At Opioid Crisis Expands Treatment Access

In response to the state’s opioid crisis, Massachusetts is about to expand access to substance abuse treatment.

As Gov. Deval Patrick entered his outer office to sign a bill aimed to curb substance abuse Wednesday, applause erupted from the hundreds of people gathered to watch — many of them lawmakers and health care providers and those struggling with their own or a loved one’s addiction.

“I am proud of this bill of and I’m proud of the way it came together with so many different people contributing so much insight,” Patrick said at the bill signing.

Senate President Therese Murray pointed to recent numbers from Worcester, where there have been eight overdose deaths since Friday. That number rose to at least nine deaths as of Wednesday night, causing the city to issue a public health advisory.

A Massachusetts mother, whose 26-year-old son recently died of an overdose, gave Murray a call this week.

“What the mother said is: ‘I know he’s not in pain anymore and I know where he is,’ ” Murray recalled. “Something has to be done, and we have all the tools in this bill.”

Among the law’s provisions: the removal of any pre-authorization required for substance abuse treatment, and allowing 14 days of inpatient treatment if deemed medically necessary.

But, while the state is in crisis, there is no evidence showing that length of time is effective, said Lora Pellegrini, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.

“Our biggest fear right now is setting this arbitrary 14 days with no medical evidence to support it,” Pellegrini said. “We’re going to see a lot of people in inpatient care who don’t need to be and a lot of people who do need those services will be unable to get beds. And we’re going to drive up costs.”

But Patrick stands by the new legislation, estimating that it will actually end up saving money.

“It is evidence-based and it’s based on evidence between a doctor and his or her patient, which is how a decision should be made,” he said.

The governor signed the bill just a few hours after Sen. Edward Markey convened a group of national and local leaders, medical professionals and law enforcement to look into a more comprehensive way to deal with the opioid crisis. They discussed implementing stronger prescription drug monitoring and allowing more doctors to prescribe the addiction medication suboxone.

Markey praised the bill the governor was about to sign because of the rising number of overdose deaths.

“It’s something that’s happening every minute of every day all across Massachusetts, all across our country,” Markey said. “It’s time for us to begin to be the leader nationally — that’s what this legislation does — it begins the process but there is a lot more to be done.”

The bill will be reviewed by the Health Policy Commission before it goes into effect in October of next year.