Hundreds Attend Conference Addressing Local Heroin Scourge
'NO ONE IS IMMUNE'
~By Chris Curtis, Recorder Staff
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That was Congressman James McGovern's message for the crowd attending Monday's conference at Greenfield Community College. "I want you to succeed because I want your efforts to serve as a guide for the federal government so that we can take some of these resources that we're dumping overseas and start directing them back here to start helping the people who need them most," McGovern said, cut off by applause.
Sponsored by the Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force, the conference drew legislators, top court officials and an audience numbering somewhere between 300 and 400, with the 300 seats in the GCC dining hall filled and late arrivals directed to an overflow room to watch the conference via video feed.
The audience heard from local officials and concerned professionals about the problem in the Franklin County region and about solutions implemented as far away as South Boston and Woburn, in Middlesex County, where Police Chief Robert Ferullo Jr. has redesigned his department to meet the problem head-on.
"I have 100 police officers, more or less, 96, and we're social workers who carry guns," Ferullo said. Ferullo said his officers are trained not to try to arrest their way out of the addiction problem, a message he said he tries to communicate to parents; they can call his department for help and not expect to see their child arrested.
Ferullo collaborates closely with his county's Heroin Education and Awareness Taskforce. Better known as HEAT, that program concentrates on education, building collaboration between disparate agencies, and, with the support of local legislators and the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, has money at its disposal to fund stays in treatment programs for the mostly young people brought to the district court probation officers who spearhead the initiative.
Speaking at the end of the three-hour conference, McGovern said he knows people who are fighting addiction and people who have died of it, and there is no silver-bullet solution.
"I think we need to adopt every single successful strategy and put it to work in this community," McGovern said.
Getting the money for those efforts was a frequent theme.
"We need to work aggressively to ensure that every individual who is caught up in this problem has a facility, an opportunity, a program that will meet their needs," said Senator Stan Rosenberg.
Rosenberg suggested changing the state and federal insurance program reimbursement rates for treatment as a first step, saying the programs serve as a last resort, but their reimbursements are inadequate, meaning fewer of their clients get into treatment programs.
Beyond that, more money is needed for more treatment beds.
"We need the beds, we need the programs and we need them as quickly as possible, so my colleagues that are here today...and everyone else, we all need to make this a budget priority this year," Rosenberg said.
Representatives Denise Andrews and Paul Mark were also in attendance.
A senate special committee formed recently on addiction and resources is touring the state and its recommendations are expected in time for the senate budget debate, Rosenberg said, and two representatives have proposed bills, one seeking to identify best practices for treatment in prisons and another in the community. A component of this would make the Department of Public Health the provider of last resort, he said, responsible for insuring adequate treatment.
Rosenberg and McGovern both said voters have a responsibility. Rosenberg pointed to an alcohol sales tax repealed several years ago that would have directly funded substance abuse treatment programs. McGovern said that it is popular among politicians and at forums to call for immediate access to treatment, but this often bogs down at the practical level with talk of "not in my backyard."