Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce President Joseph J. Bevilacqua, Gov. Charlie Baker and Chamber Chairman Salvatore N. Lupoli. (WHAV News photograph.)
The increased use of the antidote Narcan has reduced drug deaths even as overdoses climbed, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker told attendees to the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner Wednesday night in Haverhill.
Baker spent the bulk of his talk discussing the opioid epidemic, but also addressed improvements at the state’s Department of Children and Families, compacts with local governments and investments in education and housing. He said his political priorities are the result of having a “liberal Democrat” mother and Republican father. The combination, Baker joked, often discouraged dinner guests.
“My dinner table when I grew up as a kid was a laser light show of points of view. I had a lot of friends who literally would not come to our house for dinner because they were afraid,” he said.
Baker said his parents were married 62 years and he “learned a lot listening to both of them.”
The governor said his opioid program is the country’s most comprehensive. It has been copied by 46 other governors and consists of prevention education, intervention treatment and recovery. As a result, the state has increased spending 50 percent on treatment and recovery.
“We’re the only state in the country where you can’t graduate from medical school, dental school, nursing school or pharmacy school without taking and passing a course in opioid therapy and pain management. We are the only state in the country where prescribers can’t get relicensed without taking and passing a course in opioid therapy and pain management. We’re the only state in the country—you getting the message here—that’s actually created a pretty comprehensive program for athletes and coaches and parents when it comes to teaching them the pros and the cons associated with pain medication.”
After 15 years of double digit increases, Baker said, during the first six months of the year, drug overdose deaths went down and opioid pain prescriptions went down. He acknowledged overdoes still increased but the more liberal use of Narcan saved lives. He added, deaths from heroin alone went down a lot, but the widespread introduction of fentanyl has led to “a whole new set of challenges.” Not one legislator voted against it the bill, Baker said.
“This shouldn’t be partisan. Who doesn’t want to figure out a way to deal with the biggest addiction crisis of our time? Who doesn’t want to come up with a plan and a program to prevent this from happening to people on the front end and do more to come up with best practice approaches.”
Baker also talked about improvements his administration has made at the state Department of Children and Families. The state agency was widely criticized in 2015 when it was determined it prematurely closed the case of 2-year-old Bella Bond who would be murdered by her mother’s boyfriend.
The governor said the agency now has manageable caseloads for social workers, and new rules for supervisory and investigative work and in-home service policies. He said the reforms were accomplished while working with members of the Service Employees International Union.
He took the time to plug his wife, Lauren’s Wonderfund charity. The group provides extra support for foster kids by helping to pay for after school sports fees, summer camps, Christmas presents and birthday gifts.