FALL RIVER — The face of opioid addiction is no longer the disheveled, down-and-out jobless heroin addict on the street corner.
“It’s the football player, the cheerleader, the computer kid. It’s the lawyer,” said Tom Pasternak, owner of Walsh Pharmacy and chairman of the BOLD Coalition.
“The face of addiction has changed,” Pasternak said. “It’s not what it was 10 or 20 years ago.”
The availability of highly addictive opioid painkillers such as Percocet and Oxycontin — which molecularly are almost identical to heroin — is causing a dramatic increase in the numbers of young people becoming addicted to drugs and a corresponding spike in individuals seeking treatment or resorting to crime to support their habits.
“I’ve yet to come across a person who has not been affected by prescription drugs, that doesn’t know a family member, a neighbor, someone in their life who has been affected by drugs,” said Laura Washington, the BOLD Coalition Program Director for Stanley Street Treatment and Resources.
“It’s an epidemic,” Washington said.
On Thursday, Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency in Massachusetts in response to the growing opioid addiction epidemic. Patrick directed the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to take several “action steps” to address the overdose epidemic, to help those already addicted to recover and to map a long-term solution to ending widespread opioid abuse in the state. The Public Health Emergency declaration provides emergency powers to DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett.
“We have an epidemic of opiate abuse in Massachusetts, so we will treat it like the public health crisis it is,” Patrick said. “I have directed DPH to take certain immediate actions and to give me further actionable recommendations within 60 days, to address this challenge and better protect the health of people suffering from addiction and the families and loved ones who suffer with them.”
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, 72 percent of Fall River residents have received a prescription for highly addictive opioids such as oxycodone and methadone, which places the Spindle City well above the state average of 40 percent. At 72 percent, state health officials Fall River “has one of the highest” Schedule II opioid prescription rates in Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services also reports Fall River had almost 3,600 admissions to substance abuse treatment centers in fiscal 2012, the year for which the most recent statistics were available.
Almost 67 percent of those admissions were people between ages 21 to 39. More more than half — 57 percent — of those admissions reported abusing heroin abuse and 20 percent said they abused “other opiates” such as prescription painkillers.
Fifty-one percent of adults admitted to treatment centers in Fall River in fiscal 2012 identified heroin as their primary drug of use while nine percent listed other opioids, according to state statistics.
The BOLD Coalition of Fall River — a local collaborative aimed at curbing drug and alcohol abuse among youth — has joined forces with several other agencies, to reduce the risk of young adults, ages 18 to 25, abusing prescription medications.
Known as the Fall River Partnership for Success II, the program — funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services — seeks to raise awareness of the risks of abusing prescription painkillers, and the importance of discarding those medications if they are no longer needed for legitimate medical purposes.
The Fall River Partnership for Success II recently hired the Portuguese Kids comedy troupe to film a 31-second informercial targeted to young adults. The informercial, which was posted on YouTube, is part of a new media campaign that will be launched in April. The campaign includes social media outreach and a Facebook page and Web site entitled “Stop Addiction by Prescription.”
“We’ve done focus groups with this age group and they have their own voice and their own ways of getting information out there,” Washington said. “We know the message has to be broader. My hope is to empower the youth, to empower the 18 – to 25-year-olds, to make changes and to take their community back.”
The Fall River Partnership for Success II includes members from the Fall River Police Department, Bristol Community College, Charlton Memorial Hospital, St. Anne’s Hospital, SSTAR and the City of Fall River, among others.
“There is a great team of leaders in this community that are really working on this problem,” Washington said, adding that she and others in the partnership have gone to senior centers and schools to discuss the issue.
“We’re taking it a step further,” Washington said. “We know the message has to be broader.”
In addition to educating young adults about the dangers of abusing prescription painkillers, officials said they also hope to encourage local physicians to utilize the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program, a database intended to prevent prescription drug abuse and fraud.
The Prescription Monitoring Program compiles data on patients’ prescription histories, as well as prescribers’ practices, so officials can look for irregularities and report any suspected malfeasance to law enforcement agencies. The program has been in existence since 1992, but it has not been until the last five years that it has been publicized beyond a small number of well-informed members of the medical community.
“Physicians play a major role in this. They have to be responsible for who they write prescriptions to,” Mayor Will Flanagan said.
Pasternak said the voluntary program is developing to the point of being able to provide real-time data to physicians and pharmacists.
“Now, we’re even getting back messages saying, ‘You know who got a prescription for Percocets two days ago,’” Pasternak said. ”That’s a huge, huge step.”
The Prescription Monitoring Program speaks to the need for physicians to be mindful to who they prescribe opioid painkillers, and for how many pills they prescribe at a time.
“Is it really necessary for an abscess tooth to get me a week’s worth of Percocets?” said Michael Aguiar, the youth program coordinator at SSTAR.
The governor’s action plan to address the opioid abuse epidemic mandates that physicians and pharmacies use the prescription monitoring program. The plan also permits all first responders in Massachusetts — police officers, firefighters and paramedics — to carry and administer Narcan, an antidote that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. In addition, the governor’s office said it will dedicate an additional $20 million to increase treatment and recovery services to the general public, as well as to the Department of Corrections and the county sheriffs’ departments.
State Rep. Alan Silvia filed two bills last November to limit prescriptions of Schedule II opioid drugs — such as Percocet — to a 15-day supply, or 30 days in cases of the medicine being used for palliative care or to treat intractable pain. The bills are currently in the Massachusetts House of Representatives’ Rules Committee, and Silvia said he intends to refile them at the start of the next legislative session in January 2015.
Silvia said physicians should also use common sense when writing out prescriptions for opioid painkillers.
“To give someone a 15-day supply of Oxycontin for a toothache when most people could get by with extra-strength Advil … we’re not helping the situation,” Silvia said.
Aguiar calls for “environmental strategies” to address opioid addiction that would includes policy changes so that a patient does not leave an emergency room with 60 Percocets for the weekend. He said changing social norms and perceptions of popular painkillers like Oxycontin is critical.
“That’s when we’ll really start seeing the number of prescription drugs on the street decreasing,” Aguiar said.
The ease with which patients can obtain prescription opiate painkillers also means those pills are often available in a medicine cabinet for a teenager, young adult or anyone else in the house. Police have received reports of construction contractors stealing pills from bathroom medicine cabinets while on the job.
Local drug treatment counselors also said they have heard of “pill parties” where young people bring the prescription medicines that they found in their households.
“This starts in the home,” Aguiar said. “If parents start educating their children about the dangers of substance abuse in their home, we’d be so much better off.
Officials encourage local residents to discard their unused prescription pills at drop-off boxes. The Fall River Police Department has a prescription pill drop-off at its Pleasant Street headquarters. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration holds a drug take-back campaign. The next DEA take-back event is scheduled for April 26.
“It takes a whole community to solve this problem,” Aguiar said. “It doesn’t take a mayor. It doesn’t take a city council. It’s going to take all of us.” Article Link…