November 1st, 2010

Practices started to better control abuses

Between 2002 and 2007, more Americans died of opiate-related overdoses than were killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In Massachusetts alone during those years, 78 soldiers died in the wars, while 3,265 residents overdosed on opiates and died. These stark findings prompted a group of Massachusetts legislators and substance abuse and corrections officials to investigate the impacts of OxyContin and heroin abuse and issue recommendations on how the problem should be tackled.

The commission’s recommendations, released last November, drew from public hearings that included medical experts, police, addicts and their families and touched on a number of fronts including better prescription monitoring, more comprehensive training for doctors and nurses working in pain management, strengthening of federal parity laws to provide adequate treatment for substance abuse and job training for those recovering from addiction.

The report followed one released in 2006 that made some similar recommendations. Progress has been made in some areas, though as the reports point out, the problem is complex and the solutions are multi-faceted.

“There isn’t any one good answer,” says Robert Newlin Jamison, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Pain Management Center in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who served on the first commission. “One way has been tackling it through education, monitoring and safer practices. I’ve got to believe that will translate to better control [of opiate drugs].”

In August, Massachusetts health officials approved a plan that would crack down on so-called “doctor shopping” – traveling from doctor to doctor in search of powerful medications – through expanded online prescription monitoring.

Prescription drug take-back programs, in which leftover pills are brought to a designated spot for proper disposal (incineration, rather than being flushed down a toilet or buried so that chemicals can enter the soil or water supply) have sprung up in towns and cities throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England. In Seabrook, just north of the Massachusetts border, a drop-off box in the lobby of the town’s police department has helped keep thousands of drugs off the street, says Lt. Michael Gallagher, who started the program last year after five people with ties to the town had died of overdoses a few years before.

“I saw this could be a trend. It was alarming to me,” Gallagher says. “Fortunately, we haven’t had those types of numbers since then.”

Drug addiction is behind a lot of the town’s petty crime, Gallagher adds.

The drop-offs are completely anonymous; no questions are ever asked.

In addition to permanent drop-off programs in some towns, drug collection days are now held in many towns. One drive-through collection recently held in Beverly, Mass., drew more than 100 cars; three disposal bins provided by the Drug Enforcement Agency, each weighing 35-40 pounds, were filled, says Gerald MacKillop, MBA, community relations manager at Northeast Health System, which comprises a group of medical facilities north of Boston.

Educational efforts have increased as well. MacKillop noted a program in which seniors are warned about potential abuse situations – whether by younger people who offer to help them or even their own families.

“In some cases, someone may have died – if a hospice patient, for instance, there might be a lot of medication left,” MacKillop says. “It adds up.”

By Ami Albernaz

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