WALTHAM, Mass. — New England governors agreed Tuesday to seek stronger cross-border monitoring of prescription painkillers as part of a regional strategy to stem a rising tide of heroin overdoses and abuse of other opioids.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick convened the meeting at Brandeis University with his fellow governors from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont to discuss ways in which the states can work together to solve an increasingly deadly problem.
“At least 140 people died from suspected heroin overdoses in Massachusetts in just the last several months, levels previously unseen,” said Patrick. “We have a public health emergency and it’s not limited to Massachusetts.”
Maine Gov. Paul LePage did not attend the meeting. His office said he did not participate because of a scheduling conflict but wanted to be kept apprised of details. LePage later complained, however, that as the only Republican governor in New England, his point of view might not be heard.
“So rather than listen to chit-chat, I’m here trying to get the work done,” LePage said during a news conference on crime statistics in Maine.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said his state is also fighting a surge in opiate abuse. He sharply criticized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approving narcotics that can be a gateway for users to more dangerous drugs.
“There’s just no doubt in my mind that the single thing that can undermine our quality of life as a region is addiction to opiates, some approved by the FDA, and heroin, which those FDA-approved drugs often lead to,” Shumlin said.
The governors agreed to set up a system for sharing information among their own states’ prescription monitoring programs and, to help stop the practice known as “doctor shopping,” make registration of doctors in the programs mandatory across the region.
“People get introduced to a drug and enjoy the use of that product and that, in many cases, leads to doctor or clinic shopping,” said Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “And that shopping doesn’t necessarily honor state borders.”
Malloy said people can easily cross state lines to purchase a supply of prescription painkillers for personal use or to sell on the black market.
Experts at Brandeis will evaluate the prescription monitoring programs, the governors said.
Citing long waiting lists and other barriers to treatment, the governors also promised to explore interstate Medicaid agreements that would allow treatment for opiate addiction across state borders. A coordinated regional media campaign would be launched to warn residents, especially young adults, about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
“This is a disease that affects all of us, rich or poor, it knows no party affiliation, it knows no particular ethnic background, it knows no income affiliation,” said Shumlin.
The governors said they would form a working group of top-level staff to continue discussions over the summer with the goal of reaching a final plan by the end of September. “This isn’t a problem we solve overnight and it isn’t a problem that any group of citizens is going to solve by themselves,” said New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan.
Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this report.