Markey, Obama adviser propose heightened efforts to battle heroin use in Taunton

Article Date: February 24, 2014

From Taunton Gazette

By Marc Larocque

TAUNTON — About 20 minutes into a meeting between the White House drug czar and local stakeholders, two city firefighters burst from the room.

They ran out the doors of Taunton’s Central Fire Station and responded to a radio alert for another suspected overdose.

The call underscored the sense of urgency as the city, state and nation come to grips with a surging heroin and opiate abuse epidemic. State health officials say Taunton has reported 20 percent of Massachusetts’ statewide overdose deaths so far this year.

President Barack Obama’s top adviser on drug control policy, R. Gil Kerlikowske, came to Taunton on Monday morning in support of efforts to reduce fatal heroin overdoses and improve the public health system and substance abuse treatment. “In my travels throughout the country in my five years as President Obama’s adviser … this is a problem that has affected every race, economic area, rural, suburban or urban,” said Kerlikowske, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. “But it’s also something we can actually make a difference on.”

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, invited Kerlikowske to visit the Taunton Fire Department’s Central Station, where Markey announced his plans to support a national Good Samaritan law to expand the ability of civilians to administer naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan.

Markey said that naloxone, a drug used to reverse the potentially fatal effects of overdoses, is widely available in only a handful of states, including Massachusetts, which have laws to protect first-responders and others from civil liability after administering the antidote.

Markey also promised to fight in Washington for increased funding to support drug abuse treatment, including a more efficient system of identifying beds for treatment through the use of mobile and Web technology.

“We need to ratchet up the funding,” Markey said. “We need to be sure that critical detox and treatment are available when needed and are easier to access. We need a solution to easily identify, in real time, where there is an open bed. … I will work to develop innovative systems that make it easier to match those seeking detox and treatment for those available beds in real time, and to monitor the success of these programs and the state of Massachusetts is expanding those beds in fact.”

Markey’s third pledge was to modernize the public health treatment system while providing increased support for research and new solutions related to heroin addiction and other drug abuse problems.

During the meeting, Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts President Ed Kelly announced that his organization voted on Friday to equip all fire engines across the state with naloxone.

In Taunton, police Chief Edward Walsh said that he now believes his officers will eventually be equipped with the potentially life-saving drug. But Walsh said that firefighters and paramedics arrive at heroin overdose calls before police nearly every time. Walsh said while the ambulance provider in the city already carries the drug, Taunton firefighters will be equipped with naloxone and receive training for it in the near future.

Prior to a press conference, Kerlikowske, Markey, Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye Jr., state Department of Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett, local law enforcement representatives, emergency responders and others met for a closed-door forum.

Hoye said that the meeting and press conference resulted from a conversation he and Walsh had with Markey about the addiction problems in the city on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when Markey visited Taunton and spoke at the Baptist Church of All Nations.

Kerlikowske said he has been to Massachusetts six times since becoming Obama’s drug policy adviser five years ago, because the state is a national leader in drug policy and treatment.

After meeting Taunton officials on Monday, Kerlikowske said he was pleased to learn of the Taunton Police Department’s official strategy for fighting the heroin problem, which was outlined at a high-profile community forum held in the city last week. Kerlikowske called Taunton’s strategy “balanced and holistic” for its multidisciplinary approach.

Kerlikowske said it is important to continue promoting and expanding access to naloxone to save lives, which “is the key.”

“All you have to do is look to Quincy, where (naloxone) saved 200 people,” he said. “Only a handful received (naloxone) more than once. We’ve seen time after time, when someone is essentially brought back to life, they make a choice of entering into rehab. Drug addiction is a chronic disease … Relapse is a part of that.”

Kerlikowske, a former Buffalo, N.Y., police chief, said almost all of the nation’s black market heroin supply comes from the country’s southwest border. Kerlikowske said that law enforcement is important, but that the problem needs to be fought in the community by stopping people from using the drug in the first place.

Bartlett, the DPH commissioner, said that since the beginning of the year, there have been 30 heroin-related deaths statewide. In Taunton alone, according to local law enforcement, there have been six suspected heroin deaths in 2014, and at least 71 overdoses in the city over the past two months.

Bartlett said that through a naloxone distribution and education program, which has been in place in the state for more than six years, more than 2,500 overdoses have been reversed in Massachusetts. Bartlett said that Gov. Deval Patrick has invested $42 million in a comprehensive substance abuse program since he assumed office in 2007.

Bartlett said that, for this coming year, Patrick added $3 million to the budget to increase the amount of Section 35 treatment beds, “so that people get civil commitments and treatment and don’t go to the Department of Corrections for substance abuse.”

Bartlett also said that, within the next few weeks, “we will have added 280 new beds for treatment” beyond detoxification services, which she said is a small part of treatment.

“Changing lifestyle behavior takes a lot longer,” she said. “Those programs are paid for, through some DPH and some third party and insurance companies.”

Bartlett also said “specialty drug courts” to help people get into treatment are in the works in the department budget for the judicial system.

Taunton’s Lori Gonsalves — the mother of a man who suffered brain damage as the result of a heroin overdose — attended the meeting and called for more drug addiction rehabilitation resources. Gonsalves said her 25-year-old son, Cory, overdosed last July. The overdose resulted in partial blindness and created speech issues and motor skills problems.

“I’m for longer coverage in health insurance, instead of the typical five- to seven-day stay and some other outpatient program,” Gonsalves said.

Gonsalves said that, before her son’s overdose, her family spent $7,000 on a 30-day rehab stay. But it wasn’t enough. Gonsalves said if there was more public funding for long-term substance abuse treatment and better insurance coverage, it would help people like her son before it’s too late.

“Those short-term things do not work,” Gonsalves said. “You need 60 or 90 days.”

An admitted heroin addict named Keith Sproul also attended the press conference in hopes of making his voice heard. Sproul, 23, said that he is seeking a bed in a rehabilitation facility, but that he is having no success.

“I was in a hospital earlier,” said Sproul, gesturing to a hospital wristband he was wearing. “They gave me the boot. I couldn’t find a bed for treatment. They need to open more treatment facilities and have less revolving doors.”

Sproul said that seven-day detox services that are available are not enough for people like him. Sproul also said that a fentanyl-tainted strain of heroin — which local law enforcement officials said is behind a recent uptick in overdoses and overdose deaths — is not scaring him or other users away from the drug.

Markey and Kerlikowske were joined by former Boston Celtics player and Fall River native Chris Herren, who travels the country as a public speaker to tell people about his dark struggle with heroin addiction.

Herren thanked all the paramedics and firefighters in the room, recounting how he was saved by naloxone when he overdosed on heroin.

He also said that not enough addiction treatment beds are available in southeastern Massachusetts.

“Beds are needed for addicts to land on after they’ve been administered Narcan,” he said.

Original Article: http://www.tauntongazette.com/article/20140224/News/140228224/?Start=1