New Eastern Middlesex Opioid Task Force offers help for users

Malden Observer
Social News /  By Aaron Leibowitz

Posted Jul. 21, 2015 at 6:04 AM
Updated Jul 21, 2015 at 3:41 PM

MEDFORD—Sometimes, sheer will is not enough to solve a public health crisis.

For several years, communities around Massachusetts have been organizing and devoting resources to address the rise in opioid addiction and drug-related deaths. But the problem has only gotten worse.

While that reality hangs over local cities and towns like a dark cloud, the resolve to find solutions remains strong. That much was clear at the first meeting of the Eastern Middlesex Opioid Task Force last Thursday.

“If there is a piece of this work that gives us hope, it’s in looking around this room,” Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan told a jam-packed conference room at Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford. “When we ask, you always come.”

Ryan and State Sen. Jason Lewis called upon leaders from seven eastern Middlesex communities — Medford, Malden, Melrose, Stoneham, Wakefield, Reading and North Reading — to comprise the task force.

Lewis could not make the meeting because the state budget was being finalized, but a representative from his office was in attendance.

Lewis and Ryan’s goal is to regionalize efforts that have been largely local to date, coordinating between law enforcement, elected officials, healthcare professionals and community organizers.

Attendees of the meeting included local police and fire chiefs, Hallmark Health CEO Alan Macdonald, state Rep. Michael Day, Medford City Councilor Paul Camuso and representatives from Sen. Katherine Clark’s office. More than 50 people were in attendance.

Addressing the issue

Beyond simply bringing people together, the objective of the task force is to implement concrete steps to decrease death tolls.

As of July 10, there were 106 drug-related deaths in Middlesex County in 2015 — at that rate, there will be 202 drug-related deaths in the county by year’s end. There were 145 in 2014, 80 in 2013, and 65 in 2012, according to a handout distributed at the meeting.

“It’s clear to all of us who have been working on this,” said Ryan, “that we are not going to see a six-month or one-year solution to this problem.”

There may not be an easy fix to the crisis, which included 103 Middlesex County deaths from heroin in 2014, but Ryan wasted no time last Thursday getting to tangible action steps.

Drawing from her experience with the Opioid Task Force in Lowell, Ryan outlined a multi-pronged approach to addressing the crisis. She is focused on prosecuting large-scale drug distributors, training first responders in how to distribute the opioid antagonist Narcan, creating networks of community-based stakeholders and helping elected officials draft and file new legislation.

The key, Ryan said, is to coordinate and sustain care from detoxification to in-patient treatment to after-care. Through public-private partnerships, she explained, all three of those steps can be funded and handled appropriately.

In order to demonstrate how community groups and private companies can complement each other toward the same goals, Ryan first handed the floor to a representative of the Mystic Valley Opioid Abuse Prevention Coalition, and then to two social workers for Hallmark Health.

Coalition Coordinator Penelope Funaiole spoke on behalf of the Mystic Valley initiative, which has done a little bit of everything in addressing the opioid crisis.

The group has distributed pocket guides to police officers on what to do at the scene of an overdose, worked with emergency room nurses on what language to use when talking about addiction and recovery, created a 24-page guide for doctors to provide patients and trained hockey coaches in Stoneham on how to talk to their players about drugs.

Representatives of Hallmark Health followed by explaining how they have adjusted their approach to the crisis in recent years. After receiving multiple grants from the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, Melrose-Wakefield Hospital in Melrose and Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford began focusing on how they distribute painkillers to patients.

Now, Hallmark is launching a new program to examine how they give care to those battling addiction.

“The healthcare system, by and large, fails people with opiate addiction,” said Carol Plotkin, system director of behavioral Health for Hallmark, adding the goal is to ensure there are sufficient resources and limited restrictions for addicts seeking help. “If you come to us, we will give you and get you care.”

Laura Sternberger, a social worker in the maternal newborn division of Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, spoke next and noted the hospital delivered the third most substance-abused newborns in Massachusetts from 2012-15.

Her staff has learned they must provide a continuum of care, from the first prenatal visit to the fifth year of a substance-abused child’s life.

“We can’t have folks coming to us,” Sternberger said. “We need to go to them.”

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the meeting: Everyone has a role to play in addressing the opioid crisis. Ryan has even provided training to realtors, teaching them to prevent addicts from accessing medicine cabinets at house showings.

“By launching the Eastern Middlesex Opioid Task Force,” Ryan said, “we are continuing our work of building stronger communities through promoting cross-sector, interdisciplinary solutions.”

Ryan concluding by asking attendees to complete a survey after the meeting, specifying three areas where the task force should focus its energy going forward.

The task force will meet monthly, with the next meeting tentatively scheduled for Monday, Aug. 17 at 10 a.m. at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.


In the Spotlight

Use Our Interactive Map
to find current news and community events in your neighborhood and through out Middlesex county.
Click Here

Keeping children and families safe.
Learn more

Speaking for those without a voice: focusing on unsolved homicides.
Learn more