Declare Opioid Crisis a National Disaster

Opinion

By Henry Dorkin, M.D.

The opioid crisis, which is taking the lives of friends, neighbors, and family members across the country, should rightly be declared a public health emergency. However, in order to truly stem the tide of this epidemic, the declaration must be matched by a coordinated federal effort that is equivalent to what is already being done at the state level.

This crisis knows no borders, and it impacts people from all walks of life, of all ages, across the U.S. Here in Massachusetts, despite having had a wide range of public and private efforts underway for several years, we saw roughly 2,000 opioid-related overdose deaths just last year.

Our experience has demonstrated the value of patient-focused partnership between the medical community and elected officials at all levels. The Commonwealth’s 2014 declaration of the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis helped lead to a dramatic increase in the use of the state’s prescription drug-monitoring system, MassPAT.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s commitment to make the system a true clinical tool for physicians has had a major impact. According to data from the Department of Public Health, while MassPAT searches increased by 500% between the first quarter of 2015 and the first quarter of 2017, the number of Schedule II opioid prescriptions written dropped by 23%, and the number of individuals receiving prescriptions dropped by 24%.

But there is still much work to be done in implementing change that saves lives — a goal we should all share.

Massachusetts has been an innovator and a leader in identifying and implementing state and federal policies that slow the spread of opioid-use disorder and improve the ability of affected patients to get the care that they need in pursuit of recovery. For this, we thank our elected leaders, including local officials; Gov. Baker, state lawmakers and public health officials; and members of our Congressional delegation, who have fought successfully for legislation that has addressed the crisis nationally.

The data from Massachusetts confirm that policy changes can help make a difference in slowing the growth of the crisis and the countless tragic deaths that it causes. While we appreciate the effort from the Trump administration to bring to bear the strength of the federal government, we also believe that this crisis requires the allocation of adequate federal resources to make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people impacted by opioid-use disorder.

Dr. Henry Dorkin is president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

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