Federal money battles opioid abuse

Staff Writer
Published: 3/12/2016 2:31:44 AM

NORTHAMPTON – The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that it has awarded $6.8 million in grants to 20 Massachusetts health clinics to support the battle against the heroin and prescription opioid abuse epidemic.

A total of $94 million was awarded to clinics in nearly every state, of which Massachusetts received the third highest amount behind only California and New York.

The announcement also comes one day after the state Senate approved legislation that would limit painkiller prescriptions to first-time users and minors and calls for new drug abuse evaluations and screenings in schools and hospitals. 

State Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and Gov. Charlie Baker praised the funding on Friday, saying it will bolster the commonwealth’s efforts to fight the opioid epidemic and expand treatment services. 

“Tackling the opioid epidemic will require action from all levels of government and we are grateful for the support of our federal partners," Baker said in a statement emailed to the Gazette. “With nearly four people dying per day from opioid-related overdoses, our administration will keep utilizing every tool available to fight this public health epidemic and we are pleased this significant funding will help us increase treatment options across the state.” 

The money is expected to improve and expand the delivery of substance abuse services in health centers with a specific focus on treatment of opioid use disorders in underserved populations. Two clinics in the Pioneer Valley – Holyoke Health Center and Caring Health Center in Springfield – received a combined $727,105 in funding.  

Nationally, the investment is expected to help hire 800 health care workers and treat approximately 124,000 new patients, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. 

“Health centers treat some of the most at-risk patients in the country,” Jim Macrae, acting administrator of the federal agency’s Resources and Service Administration, said in a statement. “These awards position health centers to be at the forefront of the fight against opioid abuse in underserved communities.” 

Federal officials said the funding builds upon previous investments in health centers to improve and expand upon the delivery of medication-assisted treatment of opioid disorders in an integrated behavioral and health care model.

The money is designed to help clinics increase the number of patients screened for substance abuse disorders and connect them to treatment, increase access to medication-assisted treatment and provide training and education for medical professionals regarding prescribing decisions. 

Approximately 4.5 million people in the U.S. were non-medical prescription pain reliever users in 2013, and an estimated 289,000 people were heroin users, according to figures released by the federal agency Friday. 

It estimates the number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain medications nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2013 nationally, and deaths related to heroin increased 39 percent between 2012 and 2013. 

In Massachusetts, the estimated rate of unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths, which includes deaths related to heroin, reached  the highest levels ever seen in the commonwealth in 2014 with 1,099 recorded deaths, according to data released in January by the state Department of Public Health. 

The estimated rate of 17.4 unintentional opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 residents for 2014 represented a 228 percent increase from the rate of 5.3 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2000, according to the state agency. 

Staff Writer Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com


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