Massachusetts State Senator James Welch

State Senator James Welch’s office submitted these responses to the American Opioid Podcast on 2/27/2019 10:13:22 AM.

What district of Massachusetts do you represent?

Hampden District (Springfield, West Springfield, Chicopee)

Briefly, how would you describe the opioid crisis in your state?

The opioid crisis in Massachusetts is still ravaging families across the state. We have seen improvement in terms of slight reduction in the number of deaths and amount of opioids prescribed by doctors. However, fentanyl overdoses are on the rise and continue to be a major policy area for legislators to target.

What are the two or three most significant bills that have been introduced in your chamber to help alleviate the opioid crisis in your state?

1. In the most recent session the Senate looked at how to better crack down on fentanyl dealers and traffickers as part of a larger scale Criminal Justice Reform Bill. Fentanyl has been a major (and growing) concern in the opioid epidemic and looking giving law enforcement the proper tools to fight its distribution is essential to curbing its astonishing mortality rate.

2. The Senate also passed the CARE Act last session. The CARE increases access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT), explores tools to reduce harm and save lives, expanding prevention efforts, and addresses the high rates of co-occurring conditions of substance use disorder (SUD) and mental illness.

What was your involvement, if any, in those bills (e.g., introduction, advocacy, vote pledge)?

I supported numerous provisions in the criminal justice bill and was glad to see it include sections to address the opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic needs to be tackled on numerous fronts and I was an avid supporter of increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking before my “Yes” vote on the bill.

As Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Financing during the 2017-2018 session I lead the committee’s review of the bill, which ultimately led to the committee voting favorably on it. In my role I worked quickly to get this bill reported out of the committee to get it sent to the Senate floor as soon as possible.

Have any of the bills passed? If not, why?

Both bills passed in the Senate and House and were both signed into law by the Governor. Massachusetts has a long history of bipartisan action on pressing issues, and we’ve been fortunate to see that bipartisanship lead to quick action on this crisis

What was the most memorable experience you had while learning about the opioid crisis in your state?

It’s tough to pick out a single memory to be honest. The stories I hear on a nearly daily basis from family members of those addicted to opioids really stick out. They’re heartbreaking stories and the families feel so helpless. These stories ground our policy discussions in the life and death reality of the issue. Outside of these conversations the most memorable single experience was a trip I took to New Orleans last month with the National Conference of State Legislatures to talk about the opioid epidemic. It was incredibly eye-opening to hear from other states about how the epidemic had manifested itself in different areas and the approach each state took to fighting back.

If you had a magic wand that allowed you to pass any legislation you wanted in order to help alleviate the opioid crisis in your state, what would that legislation look like?

I would say, that we need more funding directed to recovery facilities and peer support programs. Maybe that’s more of a budgetary item, but that would be my ask. We have a facility in Springfield, MA that is free for those experiencing mental health crises and the good it can do is amazing. The Living Room provides a safe setting for those in crisis (including those with addiction issues) to work through their issues with peers who have experienced the same problems. This program is so successful, that in December I authored an Op-Ed promoting it as a model that should be adopted state-wide. This program not only offers comfort, food, and peer supports while giving people a safe place to keep them in recovery but it can avoid a more costly outcome.

It’s obviously not going to fix the issue in its entirety, but then again no single policy proposal will. The state need beds, facilities, and staff to help addicts find a path to recovery.

Are there any additional thoughts you would like to share?

I would also like to learn more about innovative programs are happening in other parts of country. Like what is going on with pilot programs the give out fentanyl test trips? I am not sure it is the right solution but I am a nonjudgmental student when it comes to such a devastating epidemic.