Al Bashevkin, executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, and a resident of Bennington, testifies at Tuesday’s hearing in North Adams.
Tuesday, April 29, was not a great day in the fight against
prescription drug and opiate abuse in New England.
Up in Burlington, the AP reports, Fletcher Allen Health Care said eight people came to the emergency room in one day for heroin overdoses. The number of overdoses on Tuesday was typical of what the Burlington hospital might see in several months.
Fletcher Allen officials said the eight patients were from Winooski,
Colchester, Williston and South Burlington but said they believe the
drug is likely spread throughout Chittenden County. Out in Boston, Mass., on Tuesday, drug abuse prevention groups, state lawmakers and organized labor leaders rallied outside the Statehouse to call for more restrictions on a powerful new painkiller, Zohydro. This report, too, from the Associated Press.
The rally, which drew more than 150 people, comes as Governor Deval Patrick’s latest attempt at restricting the drug faces a legal
challenge and a top federal drug regulator suggests that state policy
makers’ almost singular focus on restricting Zohydro will not be
effective in combating the scourge of prescription drug abuse.
Personally, I think this drug sounds like a catastrophe waiting to
happen, and it should never see the light of day. We already have
plenty of drugs to fight pain — why yet another highly potent one?
Also on Tuesday, down in my hometown of North Adams, Mass., there was a public hearing on the fight against prescription drug and opiate abuse. This, the Bay State’s smallest city, is suffering from
prescription drug abuse and opiate abuse just as much as Bennington, Rutland or any community in Vermont.
One of my volunteer activities in my non-Banner life is to serve as on
a prescription and opiate abuse committee/task force for Northern
Berkshire. This group includes substance abuse and mental health
professionals, law enforcement, recovering addicts, a retired medical
doctor, people who work with youth and one or two representatives of
the faith community, including me. Our group has helped doctors get
training in proper prescribing practices for opioids, publicized the
Mass. version of a “good Samaritan law” encouraging addicts to report
when a friend has an overdose, and helped present an nighttime vigil
against abuse, and more. We have found the experience in Vermont to be quite instructive. We have watched and shown “The Hungry Heart,” about the fight against addiction in St. Albans.
So, as a member of this task force, on Tuesday I attended two hours of a three-hour public hearing at North Adams City Hall of the
Massachusetts Senate Special Committee on Drug Abuse Treatment and Options.
Only two state legislators were there — Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan,
D-Leominster, chairwoman of this committee, and Sen. Benjamin Downing,
D-Pittsfield, who represents all of Berkshire County in Boston. Local
and regional media were present, too, including TV stations WNYT-13
and WTEN-10 from Albany, N.Y.
“Today, we’re here to listen,” said Flanagan, who seemed exceptionally
knowledgeable about the topic and asked excellent questions of each
person who testified.
And testified they did. Recovering addicts, the North Adams veterans
agent, the mother of an addict, the high school adjustment counselor,
the director of the Head Start program, the director of the community
coalition, an official of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a
local deputy sheriff, a representative of the Berkshire County
District Attorney, the mayor, local treatment providers, a doctor, and
I took some notes, but this post is not meant to be an unbiased look
at the situation. Here are some of what I felt were the most important
comments and insights while I was there:
• At present there are only 26 residential beds for substance abuse
treatment in Berkshire County.
• With the closing of North Adams Regional Hospital, a “gateway to
treatment” has been lost.
• A doctor traced the origins of this problem to the 1990s when the
medical establishment began to call pain “the fifth vital sign” and
became much more vigilant in treating it. However, she noted, the
other vital signs can be objectively measured while pain is subjective
to the individual.
• This same doctor said that we have “a whole generation of people
addicted to opioids” and she didn’t want to have another. She also
said there is no “parity” in how addiction and mental illness are
insured as opposed to other illnesses. There is parity in paper but
not in practice: “We have treatment that works, we just don’t have
insurance that will pay for it.” She affirmed that addiction is a
disease, that some people have a genetic predisposition for it,
aggravated by environmental factors.
• Among things Berkshire County lacks are 12-step programs for teens
and young adults.
• One person testifying drew a very straight line between the lack of
jobs, including for highly trained veterans, and the feelings of
hopelessness that lead people to addiction in the first place. He said
there needs to be a Veterans Administration medical center in North
Adams, Pittsfield and Bennington are too far away.
• One person noted of long-term addicts: “When people get sober they
have no idea how to live.” One malignant result of addiction is
• Front and center was the geographical discrimination that people at
the far western end of Massachusetts know well. For instance, unlike
other parts of Massachusetts, Berkshire County has no drug court, to
aid in diverting those who wish for help from jail or prison time to
treatment. And the officials at that hearing were just as enthusiastic
and willing, as are the officials I know in Vermont, to treat this
epidemic and scourge as a public health rather than primarily a
criminal problem. This included the big brusque man from the Berkshire
County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the county jail.
• Another thing that Berkshire County got left out on in favor of
eastern Massachusetts was the pilot program for Narcan (Naloxone)
treatment. This is the drug that has the power to reverse overdoses
and it’s sale is not restricted. However, it does have side-effects
and people need to be trained to use it.
“It’s upsetting to me that you don’t have a pilot program for Narcan
and a drug court,” Flanagan said.
As this is a religion blog, and I am the official faith community
representative on the task force, I must say that I feel the faith
community in Northern Berkshire needs to be doing more on this issue.
I am going to try to organize a discussion in may with the local,
mostly non-clergy interfaith group. Both clergy and people in the pews
need to be doing more on prescription and opiate abuse. The big
question is what?