Berkshire County considers legislation to improve drug treatment

Last Tuesday, Gail Lesure, program director at the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, spoke at a meeting of the state Senate Special Committee on Drug Abuse and Treatment Options. The discussion focused on the necessity of funding to maintain the effectiveness of resources, including support and treatment centers in Berkshire County. The special committee, chaired by state Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, was at Boston’s City Hall for the sixth of eight planned public hearings across the state in anticipation of legislation designed to streamline and bulk up support for treatment options.

Lesure touched on the importance of these prevention techniques in the community. “Prevention is a fraction of the cost of incarceration … We need to move our funding to prevention,” Lesure said. According to Lesure, a variety of obstacles prevent addicts and their families from receiving the necessary help and support for a healthy recovery. These obstacles include everything from insufficient insurance coverage and state reimbursements to waiting lists for treatment centers, transportation issues or general lack of outreach to these families struggling with addictions.

“We need to send a message that help and hope is available,” Lesure said. “This is a community health problem and it will take a community effort to find solutions.”

Flanagan, who holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling, also recognized the lack of funding for these recovery tactics as problematic. State president Therese Murray acknowledged the problem by appointing this specific committee to research potential solutions. “We need to start talking about this as a health care crisis and not as a criminal justice problem,” Murray said. “I’ve been dealing with these issues for over 10 years in the Legislature … I need to know from you up here in Northern Berkshire County what’s going on and how I can be helpful.”

The problems with heroin and opioids were specifically addressed at this meeting. Anne French, the service learning coordinator for the North Adams Public Schools and Berkshire County Head Start Executive Director Stacy Parsons noted that substance abuse problems are affecting the community’s children. According to Superintendent James Montepare, funding is needed to hire counselors to help deal with children affected by addiction in their home environments.

Parsons recently said that Head Start, a federal program that provides early childhood education and support for children from low-income families, has seen an increasing number of children from broken homes who are being raised by grandparents. In response, the organization has become more invested in helping parents with addiction issues. “We’ve really come to be case managers and cheerleaders for families. When someone goes off the rails, it really is emotionally difficult on the staff,” she said.

Several speakers emphasized the need for additional funding for beds in the Berkshires. Addicts seeking help may have to wait four to six weeks to get into the centers at Holyoke or Springfield; there are only 24 residential beds in Berkshire County compared to 310 in Central Massachusetts. The speakers  urged Flanagan and state Sen.  Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, to pressure insurance companies to pay for more than five-day detox treatments and for the state to reimburse at higher than the current average 63 percent.

Flanagan explained that there is not quick solution to a problem like this. However, she said she was impressed with the amount of data collected by the speakers and their collaborative efforts.