Panel floats ideas on treating opioid addiction

  • Sen. Jo Comerford, Rep. Tami Gouveia, Cara Moser and Liz Whynott speak at a Tapestry panel on Monday at ServiceNet in Northampton.  STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2019 11:28:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — On a Friday last November, Cara Moser got a call at work. Her daughter, Eliza Harper, had overdosed at home in South Deerfield.

Harper’s 14-year-old brother found her on the couch and tried to revive her, but it didn’t work. She died on Nov. 30, her birthday.

“She was 26 years old. She had been struggling, we think it was for five years,” Moser said of her daughter’s heroin addiction.

For the previous 10 months, Moser said, Harper had been in recovery. “She wanted out,” Moser said at a panel on opioid addiction hosted by Tapestry on Monday evening.

But there were issues. Moser recalled her insurance only covering three weeks of treatment when she thought a longer treatment would have been more effective. And when her daughter wasn’t using but was about to, she said, she would call a treatment center and they instructed her to take drugs so that she could be admitted.

To Moser, the system is not working, “We really are letting people down,” she said. “There is (a) treatment for this.”

She said after her loss, she has come to a realization: “This nation needs safe overdose prevention.”

Moser and other panelists — including Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and District Attorney David Sullivan — spoke about opioid addiction and how legislators, advocates and public health workers are addressing the crisis locally and around the state.

Rep. Tami Gouveia, D-Acton, spoke about bills she has filed that aim to address opioid addiction.

One bill, a joint petition with Comerford, would establish a three-year pilot program studying how fentanyl test strips could help those with an opioid addiction.

Of opioid-related deaths statewide in 2018 that also had a toxicology report, 89 percent tested positive for fentanyl, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. That percentage has increased from roughly 40 percent in 2014 and is trending upward.

Another bill Gouveia filed would charge fees to opioid manufacturers which would go into a fund to pay for Narcan. “We know some municipalities can afford it and some can’t,” she said of the overdose-reversing medication.

Comerford said that a lack of transportation options in western Massachusetts and not enough treatment centers are also a problem.

“In Athol, often people have to go to Springfield to seek methadone or up to Vermont,” she said. “This is a significant challenge.”

Public officials have not always taken action on addiction like some are now.

Less than 10 years ago, Liz Whynott, director of harm reduction at Tapestry, said the organization struggled to distribute Narcan. “It was incredibly hard to get into any substance treatment center to give out Narcan,” she said. At that time, she said, their attitude was that it enabled drug use.

Now, that’s not the case. “It just showed how the trend can change,” she said.

Whynott and Sullivan spoke about how race played into that shift. Sullivan recalled working as a defense attorney in Holyoke in the late ’80s when the black community was hit hard with addiction to drugs like crack cocaine. “There was very little concern,” Sullivan recalled. “And we all know why — it wasn’t impacting the white community ... This is how racial disparities work.”

Many panelists spoke about the possibility of safe injection sites, of which there are none in the state currently.

“It’s a safe space where people can use their drugs in a sterile environment and have medical supervision,” explained Cherry Sullivan, program coordinator of Hampshire HOPE and the panel moderator.

A state government commission recommended in February that lawmakers approve the creation of safe injection sites in Massachusetts, but Gov. Charlie Baker remains opposed to the idea.

Whynott said Tapestry currently operates five syringe access programs and plans to open a site in Chicopee in the next few months.

The idea behind these solutions is “harm reduction,” an approach started by drug users, Whynott said. “As harm reductionists, we accept that drug use will happen, no matter what,” Whynott said. The focus is then on how to reduce risk and increase the health of drug users.

Moser talked about the importance of including those with addiction in coming up with solutions. Even when her daughter used drugs, she was still the same person.

“That person never changed — we can’t forget that,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek. “We need to include that in our message.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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