Rep. Neal talks bi-partisan federal response to opioid addiction

  • U.S. Rep. Richard Neal gives an interview after speaking at the John Zon Community Center on Wednesday in Greenfield.  STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 10/25/2018 5:30:05 PM

GREENFIELD — While President Donald Trump was signing an opioid bill that has been widely regarded as a bipartisan accomplishment, one of its cosponsors spent time at the John Zon Community Center Wednesday talking about the political collaboration.

“This is not a Democrat or Republican problem,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said of opioid addiction and recovery. “This is an American problem that demands an American solution.”

Neal addressed a few dozen gathered at the monthly meeting of the Massachusetts Mayors’ Association, hosted by the association’s president, Greenfield Mayor William Martin. In attendance were mayors from neighboring cities like Northampton and Easthampton, and representatives from the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region.

About the same time in the day, Trump was signing a bill that had cleared Congress with near unanimous support earlier this month. The U.S. Senate approved the legislation 98-1 and the House of Representatives 393-8, including Neal’s vote.

“At a time when there’s no shortage of outrage in our lives,” Neal said. “This is one (issue) we need a sustained response to.”

The bill, the Opioid Crisis Response Act, works to increase access to medication assisted treatment like Suboxone and Methadone and to alleviate some restrictions for those with Medicaid to get substance abuse treatment. Neal said he was a major player in getting that into the bill. The legislation also makes it more difficult to send illicit drugs by mail.

“It is refreshing to see the federal government has come to consensus of not just policy but funding,” said John Merrigan, Franklin County register of probate and co-founder of the Opioid Task Force. He did note that “sometimes big government moves slowly,” but said he was happy to see Neal and Congress work toward allocating money to address the crisis. Neal, a Democrat, represents parts of Hampshire, Franklin, Hampden and Worcester counties, and all of Berkshire County.

For the region, like much of the country, it will be some time before there is a clear picture of what this bill will bring exactly in terms of money for programs and research.

In the meantime, the Opioid Task Force will continue to run on grants it has received in recent months. As opportunities to apply for grants become available, the task force will work toward finding what fits best locally, its leaders said.

With the widespread support in Congress and the support of Neal, state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, said “to see state, local, and federal government all here with a common mission,” helps to give him “a lot of hope” when he works on these types of issues on Beacon Hill.

Neal noted both in his speech to the Mayors’ Association and talking afterward that the frontline of addressing the opioid epidemic often is mayors and law enforcement.

“Sometimes in legislative life there can be esoteric issues, but there really are very few esoteric issues at the local level,” Neal said. “Instead, it’s more about how you respond to the crisis in front of you.”

Neal, who recently handily defeated his challenger in September’s Democratic primary but has no opponent in the Nov. 6 midterm election, has been a primary partner for the Opioid Task Force to garner grant money.

Last month, the task force announced a 3-year, $1 million U.S. Department of Justice youth empowerment grant that Neal helped secure.

Neal was also a part of a grant to help the task force and the Franklin County House of Corrections fund a Suboxone program for inmates who come with addiction issues, which Neal described as a “legitimate treatment,” although he pushed for other means outside of jail for people to recover.

Neal said to treat the epidemic, communities need to have more treatment facilities and, therefore, more medical workers.

“You want to make sure you provide ample opportunity and some flexibility for those in law enforcement to treat this issue and as everybody now knows, it can’t just be lock them up,” Neal said. “I think that is different than drug pushers — lock them up — but I think with the addicted, you are not going to incarcerate away the problem.”


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