Baker signs landmark opioid law

With legislative leaders looking on, Gov. Charlie Baker signs a substance abuse prevention bill into law during a Monday morning ceremony at the Statehouse.

BOSTON — Prescription painkillers will be limited to a week-long supply under landmark legislation signed into law yesterday by Gov. Charlie Baker, who vowed to keep pushing for tougher restrictions to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths.

Baker fought back tears at a bill-signing ceremony at the Statehouse as he recalled stories of families who lost loved ones to addiction. He said the new law is the most comprehensive in the country to date and will go a long way toward curbing the state’s opioid crisis.

“Today the commonwealth stands in solidarity to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that continues to plague our state and burden countless families and individuals,” Baker said at a ceremony where he was flanked by state officials and substance abuse experts.

The new law places strict limits on opioid prescriptions, including the painkillers given after surgery or an injury, to a seven-day supply. Patients needing more painkillers will have to return to the doctor’s office to get a refill. Minors will be limited to a seven-day supply in total.

Patients with cancer or chronic pain, or receiving painkillers for palliative care, are exempted.

Public schools will be required to screen students in middle and high school to identify those at risk of addiction to drugs, and physicians will be required to check a state registry each time they prescribe an addictive opioid.

Other provisions require that a mental health professional conduct a substance abuse evaluation on anyone who enters a hospital emergency room suffering from an opioid overdose within 24 hours. The law gives patients the option to fill a lesser amount of a painkiller prescription.

The bill also requires doctors and pharmacists to warn patients of the dangers of opioids. It calls for additional training for doctors and medical students about substance abuse, and it establishes a new program to dispose of unneeded drugs.

The Massachusetts law is far stricter than federal limits, which cap initial opioid prescriptions to 30-day supplies.

Lawmakers and substance abuse experts say patients often leave doctors’ offices with greater supplies of painkillers than necessary through prescription renewals that don’t require follow-up exams. Such prescriptions have been blamed for painkiller addictions that often lead to heroin use.

“This is the beginning of a turn in our society,” said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, of the new law. “We’ve all heard countless stories of people who got started with an opioid prescription that had too many pills, and it eventually led down a path of addiction.”

Attorney General Maura Healey said she hoped new prescribing rules would prevent other families from losing loved ones to opioid addiction.

“To those who have lost loved ones, to those who have loved ones who are hurting, who are struggling, who are in pain, I recognize — we all recognize — that this legislation will not bring your loved ones back,” she said at yesterday’s bill signing, as she, too, fought back tears.

Baker had proposed even tougher rules on prescriptions that would limit patients to an initial 72-hour supply. The first-term Republican governor also wanted to give physicians and other medical professionals the power to involuntarily commit addicts for treatment for up to 72 hours, if that person were deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Those provisions didn’t survive negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers.

Most provisions of the bill — including the prescription limit — take effect immediately. Others, such as emergency room assessments and the requirement for doctors to check the state Prescription Monitoring Program, go into effect later this year, according to state health officials.

The legislation signed by Baker yesterday is the latest in a series of steps by state leaders to address a surge of fatal, opioid-related overdoses.

State public health officials said preliminary estimates show more than 800 deaths from opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2015 — a number that is expected to rise as more data becomes available.

In 2014, fatal overdoses claimed nearly 1,200 lives, including 182 in Essex County.

The Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at tackling opioid abuse and increased funding for treatment programs to $138 million in the current budget year.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said those efforts are eliminating the stigma of opioid addiction.

“The problem used to be seen as a crime; now it’s understood as a disease,” he said yesterday. “This is a disease that has been experienced by everyone in the commonwealth, no matter their background or economic circumstances.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at cwade@cnhi.com.

Recommended for you