Can now be informed of early releases from rehab commitments
Massachusetts has taken another “step in the right direction” in the fight against the opioid addiction epidemic with the success of legislation to keep families apprised of early releases from rehab commitments.
Its success is largely due to one family’s resolve to save another family from the pain of losing a loved one to an overdose.
“You have to stay persistent,” former Hanson Selectman David Soper said. “That’s what this story is all about — persistence and luck and good people.”
Soper is the uncle of overdose victim Stephen Berry, who became addicted to opioids after oxycontin was prescribed for him to deal with pain following a dirt bike accident.
An amendment to the state’s Section 35 involuntary commitment law — requiring that a family member/petitioner is notified of any early release from the program — sponsored by Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, and state Sen. Viriato DeMacedo, R-Plymouth, has been included in the opioid bill that Gov. Charlie Baker is set to sign.
For Soper, the news came as a bittersweet victory after months of work toward saving another family from his own anguish.
“As you can imagine David was very passionate about making sure that this doesn’t happen to another family like happened to them,” DeMacedo said Monday, Aug. 6. “I’m honored to have participated in a small way in getting this amendment passed so this won’t happen to another family.”
Cutler was traveling and could not be reached for comment. No information was avaiable at presstime regarding the signing date.
“The closer we got [to the amendment’s passage] the more we started to reflect on what actually happened to us to get this done, and somebody had to die to get it done,” Soper said Friday, Aug. 3. “This is probably one of the most difficult things I have ever accomplished in my life. I had to stay on this.”
The change in the notification process was driven by family members of an overdose victim in Plymouth County and DA Timothy Cruz and the family of Soper, who testified in May on the bill.
“It spirals out of control so fast,” Berry’s father Thomas told television reporters after testifying in the May at a bill hearing.
Thomas Berry explained addiction runs in his family and all his son needed was “a couple of those puppies” to become addicted. Before long Stephen’s habit was deemed serious enough to have him involuntarily committed to the Bridgewater State Rehabilitation Center on April 3, 2017.
He was supposed to be there for 90 days, but was released after two weeks because he had a pending court date.
Soper said there was no professional guidance offered to his nephew, nor any notification to his family that he was being released.
DeMacedo said he was compelled by the common sense of the request and noted most people do not understand that many people committed to treatment under Section 35 do not complete the entire 30-day hold.
“I think this gets us one step closer to addressing these issues,” DeMacedo said Monday. “When we Section 35 somebody it’s because they are a harm to themselves or others and we want to make sure they are getting the help necessary.”
Soper credited DeMacedo, Cutler and Cruz for their work in support of the change, particularly DeMacedo after the bill died in House Committee.
“Senator DeMacedo took the verbiage and created an amendment to Gov. Baker’s Care Bill Section 35,” Soper said. “That’s pretty much what saved it.”
The late filing of the House Bill had put it at risk because of timing contraints, Soper said.
“The bill was strong enough to get a hearing, but there was just too much work in front of them,” he said. What started as a 587 line bill had more the doubled in length by the time it passed.
He noted that state representatives serve about 49,000 residents, fielding some 500 calls a week for constituent services. State senators serve some 100,000 people, resulting in hundreds more calls for assistance.
“So many people fear government and say, ‘You have to be connected to make this happen,’” Soper said. “That’s absolutely false. If you just continue to ask questions, there is not a politician alive that will not return your call because it’s what they’re supposed to do, it’s in their best interest and they’re here to serve the people.”
Soper said Cruz was very warm and understanding to his brother in-law’s family as one of the most nimble divisions in government “that sees this opioid crisis for what it is” and is working with the medical community to get people the help they need.
“When we went up to Boston and testified, everybody seemed very receptive to the idea, because it really wasn’t a big change per se — but an important change,” Cruz said Friday, Aug. 3. “All it’s really doing is making sure whoever files the appropriate petition under Section 35, is they get notified if there’s a release.”
That’s where HIPAA privacy regulations had to be dealt with, Soper said. It took several meetings with Health and Human Services, the Department of Mental Health and other agencies to work the bill through.
“I talked to many people who said it was a violation of federal law,” Soper said. “People are dying. Since when does Massachusetts shy away from leading the way.”
DeMacedo said the federal law considers substance abuse rehabilitation a medical situation to which HIPAA applies, prohibiting the release of information without patient consent.
“We worked to try to find a way to get this idea passed,” he said. That meant the inclusion of a consent form at the time of commitment for a patient to sign permitting notification of their family should they be released early.
“If we were not able to get the consent, we would not have been able to do this,” DeMacedo said.
Cruz called the change an “important additional tool” to keep families informed as they try to help loved ones fight addiction.
“Everybody knows somebody, unfortunately, or a family that’s dealing with this terrible epidemic,” Cruz said. “It’s an ongoing fight. We have a lot of good things going on in our county, from Plymouth County Outreach and Plymouth County HOPE, the Drug Abuse Task Force, but even though I think we’re leading the charge, we’re still fighting the battle.”
He described the Section 35 amendment as one step to give hope to families, keeping their loved ones safe as they work to get them into another facility when the commitment is over or they are to be released early.
“Stephen Berry was an adult, so [the rehab center] didn’t notify the parents and there was a terrible circumstance in that they had things all lined up for him and because he was released earlier that what they were told, he ended up unfortunately relapsing and getting more drugs and passing away,” Cruz said last week.