Faced with rising addiction rates across the Commonwealth, state senators last week passed a bill that would more strictly regulate the distribution of prescription pain drugs in an effort to keep increasingly popular drugs like Oxycotin and Vicodin off the streets.
The bill passed unanimously, 36-0, and is expected to appear before the House as early as this week. Lawmakers said the new regulations would create additional state oversight to ensure that doctors are not writing fraudulent prescriptions, alert both federal and local authorities when any quantity of prescription opiates are reported lost, and minimize the legal repercussions for people who seek medical assistance during an overdose.
If passed, the bill will require the state’s 40,000 medical professionals who are qualified to write prescriptions to register with the Department of Public Health prescription monitoring program over the next three years. It will require the 30 percent of doctors who legislators say write 90 percent of all opiate prescriptions to register as soon as the bill is passed. Currently, enrollment in the monitoring program is voluntary and only lists about 1,700 Massachusetts doctors.
Senator Jack Hart, who has been a strong proponent for the bill, said Massachusetts is “one of 14 states that have mortality rates associated with substance abuse that tally more than car accidents.” Hart hopes the new legislation will improve the quality of life for both residents struggling with addiction and those victimized by opiate users to feed their addiction.
“We have increased break-ins in every Boston neighborhood because of the rate of addiction is so high and the people looking for that next fix are generally out of work and have no means to make that money,” Hart said.
According to Boston Public Health Commission’s Health of Boston 2011 Report, medical calls for non-heroin opiod emergencies have increased by 75 percent from 2001 to 2010. Painkillers account for more than one in five drug-related calls throughout the city.
Dorchester has a slightly higher opiate-related mortality rate (15.5 deaths per 100,000) compared to the citywide average of 15.2, but residents from the neighborhood enroll in treatment programs at a slightly lower frequency (3.3 residents per 1,000) than the city as a whole.
Dorchester Substance Abuse Coalition coordinator and community organizer Adelia Rocha has been working to tackle the rising use of prescription opiates among teenagers through education and public awareness campaigns. Rocha welcomed any law that would make calling for medical help an easier choice when teens are faced with an overdose.
“From a public health perspective I see this being a really great initiative,” Rocha said. “It’s basically a way to refrain from penalizing someone for calling 911 and helping save someone’s life. I think it should definitely be given consideration and voted on.”
Rocha added that unlike street drugs like heroin, prescription drugs carry less of a stigma among youths and are often-times easily found at home, making them both easier to acquire and a greater threat.
State Representative Martin Walsh, who serves as a board member for the Gavin Foundation which operates a number of addiction recovey programs in Boston, seconded Rocha’s concerns. Walsh said the high street price for Oxycotin means many addicts soon find themselves purchasing heroin when their funds begin to run out.
“When someone gets hoooked on oxy, it gets too expensive. They start shooting heroin as a cheaper alternative,” Walsh said. “When you’re buying the pill at $20 a pill and you’re not working, that money runs out very quickly.”