Heroin addict's aunt tells panel, 'There's no other disease ... you'd be turned away
Health professionals, advocates, addicts and family members packed a Statehouse listening session of an opioid addiction task force on April 2, 2015.
BOSTON - Barbara O'Brien is only 16, but her life has been touched by heroin.
Her brother has struggled with addiction for eight years. "It not only affects his life, it affects everyone around him more than he probably realizes," O'Brien said. O'Brien has spent nights crying because she does not know where her brother is. Some nights, her mother would not come home, because she was looking for O'Brien's brother to get him into treatment. O'Brien used to be embarrassed to tell friends that her brother was a heroin addict.
O'Brien urged an opioid working group on Thursday to provide more education in cities, towns and schools to people of all ages.
"If more people were educated on the topic, it wouldn't be so hard to talk about it, because they would realize they're not alone in struggling with a family member who is an addict," O'Brien said through her tears.
The working group, established by Gov. Charlie Baker, is chaired by Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and charged with developing a statewide strategy to combat opioid addiction. The group held the final of four public listening sessions at the Statehouse. The first three - in Greenfield, Worcester and Plymouth - drew a combined 1,000 attendees. Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Attorney General Maura Healey joined task force members in listening to a litany of heartbreaking stories and pleas for more treatment beds, better insurance coverage and more education.
Jenna Cochrane said her nephew, Michael O'Connor, came to her in November and admitted that he was a heroin addict who had ended up in the emergency room twice after overdosing. Cochrane begged him to get help and made a list of detox facilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They sat in her car in a McDonald's parking lot and called every one.
"Every single one said no beds, no beds, no beds," Cochrane recalled.
Cochrane took O'Connor to an emergency room and lied and said he was suicidal, so the hospital would have to hold him. He stayed in the hospital for eight days, but no detox beds opened up.
"Its sickening," Cochrane said. "There's no other disease in this world you'd be turned away for health care. It's discriminatory and it's disgusting."
"How many people are going to die while you people on the panel gather information?" - William Pfaff
O'Connor was released from the hospital. He died Jan. 9.
"I have a lifetime of pain and suffering ahead of me as do my family members because of negligence in not providing health care to individuals with the disease of addiction," Cochrane told the task force.
According to state statistics, there were nearly 1,000 deaths in 2013 from unintentional opioid overdoses, an increase of 46 percent over 2012. Unintentional overdoses led to more than 2,000 hospital stays in 2013. The state police have reported more than 200 overdose deaths so far this year.
The spike of overdoses has led to a renewed political focus on the issue. The Legislature last year convened a task force, then passed a law that, among other things, requires insurers to cover 14 days of inpatient care without preauthorization and to cover abuse deterrent drugs. Baker, after taking office, .
Both Baker and Healey have talked about the need to educate doctors about the dangers of prescribing addictive painkillers too frequently and to crack down on doctors who prescribe them irresponsibly. Baker said nationally, 80 percent of heroin addicts first became addicted to prescription drugs.
Healey said Thursday that she wants to look at problematic prescribing and dispensing practices; put in place a better prescription drug monitoring program; do more to educate students and families about identifying and preventing addiction; and work with health care providers and insurers to ensure better access to treatment and recovery services. "We really need to come at this issue from so many different fronts in order to really be able to get at this terrible disease," Healey said. "Everyone needs to be at the table, because every day people are dying here in this state."
At the hearing, health professionals, recovering addicts and family members made a range of proposals: requiring insurers to cover more recovery programs, including 12-step programs or those with a religious component; putting money toward more detox and recovery beds; creating a system where follow-up care is more readily available and covered by insurance; providing more education to students in schools; and replacing the beds that were lost when a residential recovery program in Boston closed after the Long Island bridge was condemned. Many also talked about removing the stigma around addiction.
"Having a disease doesn't make you a bad person," said Delaney Tivnan, whose father died of a heroin overdose.
William Pfaff, a Billerica tattoo artist, founded a Facebook page "Heroin is killing my town" after his best friend and his daughter's boyfriend died from heroin use. His group now acts as a support network, connecting addicts and their families to peers who can help them, and helping to find people services like detox beds. Pfaff was one of a group of people wearing neon yellow shirts that read, "Are you listening?"
Pfaff said he came to the hearing to ask: "How many people are going to die while you people on the panel gather information?"