By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Abuse of illicit drugs, including heroin, again posed a significant public health problem in Massachusetts last year with eastern Massachusetts posting a rate of emergency room visits involving drugs higher than that of any other major metropolitan region in the country, according to a new report.
The problems were particularly acute in Worcester where lifetime heroin use was twice the state and national average, and on the South Shore where researchers said one person died every eight days from an overdose.
The rate of emergency room visits in eastern Massachusetts for drugs surpassed that of much larger metropolitan areas in 2011, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, according to the report. The region also ranked first at a rate of four times the national average among metropolitan regions for emergency room visits involving heroin.
The report, due to be released Tuesday morning by the Massachusetts Health Council, also found that violent crimes in Massachusetts were on the decline, with 8.5 percent fewer rapes, murders, aggravated assaults and other violent crimes reported from 2010 to 2011, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.
Council researchers plan to detail their findings at a State House event, providing a reference for policy makers and health professionals as they weigh the state's progress toward public health goals and areas where improvement may be needed.
"The 2012 report confirms a clear connection between each of these preventable health statistics and the affect they have on the state as a whole. We need to recommit ourselves to prevention policies if we hope to limit these devastating diseases. The trends show persistent health disparities between the poor and those of greater economic means and between racial and ethnically diverse populations. Public officials and health advocates have a responsibility to address these issues and help ensure better health quality for all our residents," Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council, said in statement.
For the past several years, slow economic growth and rising fixed costs for health care, pensions and other costs have increased competition for discretionary state spending, such as substance abuse treatment.
Lawmakers in 2010 voted to apply the state's 6.25 percent sales tax to alcohol purchases and earmarked the more than $100 million raised from the tax to substance abuse programs. However, voters that same year responded to the appeals from small business and consumer groups and repealed the alcohol sales tax at the ballot box.
Other measures aimed at addressing drug addiction have included a bill passed in August and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick that seeks to reduce prescription drug abuse by strengthening the state's prescription monitoring program.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, attending a national recovery month celebration in September, said substance abuse programs must remain a priority even when the state's financial resources are stretched. DeLeo, of Winthrop, mentioned a $2.4 million increase in funding in this year's budget for substance abuse programs, totaling $77.2 million. Lawmakers also restored funding for a handful of programs that went without funds during fiscal 2012, including substance abuse step-down recovery services and secure treatment facilities for opiate addiction, DeLeo said.
The report also showed a decreased in murders of 13.6 percent, while incidences of forcible rape were down 8.7 percent and aggravated assaults declined 10.1 percent from year to year. With a rate of 428 violent crimes per 100,000 people reported in Massachusetts in 2011, the state remained the most violent in the Northeast, but such crimes were down overall - 10 percent in Boston, 33 percent in Lowell and 24 percent in Springfield.
Titled "Common Health for the Commonwealth: Massachusetts Report on the Preventable Determinants of Health," the 2012 report is the seventh such study published by the council, a nonprofit, non-partisan statewide organization of more than 150 government and volunteer agencies, consumer advocacy groups, professional societies and private corporations.
Topics measured by the report include rates of poverty, access to care, education, air pollution and asthma, tobacco use, obesity, violence, suicide, substance and alcohol abuse and infectious blood-borne disease.
Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat and Senate vice-chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, said lawmakers ought to use the report to inform their policy decisions. "Whether it's tragic statistics like the heroin overdoses, or troubling trends around dental care, the MHC Report helps us promote prevention as a way to create healthier communities, reduce costs and save lives," Chandler said in a statement.
Chandler also co-chairs the Legislature Oral Health Caucus. The report studied oral health for the first time, and found "particular concern" with the number of 2- to 8-year-olds suffering from dental decay and disparities among those with tooth loss.
Rep. Jason Lewis, a Boston Democrat and House vice-chairman of the Public Health Committee, said there were positives and lessons to be taken from the report. "This edition once again demonstrates some significant improvements over the last two years but, unfortunately, we have several serious problems that demand immediate attention such as substance abuse, violence, and better oral care," Lewis said in a statement.