Health Experts, Medical Providers Urge Health-Centered Approach to Boston’s Addiction Crisis

Health Experts, Medical Providers Urge Health-Centered Approach to Boston’s Addiction Crisis

For immediate release: October 6, 2021

(BOSTON) In a letter sent today to public officials and Boston mayoral candidates, public health experts and medical providers urged public officials to take a health-centered approach to the growing humanitarian crisis in the area of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and the overdose epidemic throughout Massachusetts.

The public health experts and advocates sent the letter to Governor Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, Chief Justice Paula Carey, Mayor Kim Janey, and the full Boston City Council. The letter was also sent to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and Executive Office of Health and Human Services, noting that health experts and providers stand ready to collaborate on effective, humane strategies to addressing the urgent public health crisis.

Signers of the letter—which include Mass General Brigham, the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine, and the Massachusetts College of Emergency Physicians—oppose Sheriff Tompkins’ proposal to create an involuntary detention center for unhoused people who now congregate at Mass and Cass in Boston. According to public health experts, there is no evidence that involuntary treatment improves outcomes; instead, there is concerning data that it may increase the risk of overdose and death.

“Across the Commonwealth, we have made strides in reducing the criminalization of substance use disorder, mental illness, and houselessness,” Danna Mauch, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health. “Expanding a model of involuntary treatment in a correctional setting is not only regressive, but also opens the door to so many of our most vulnerable community members losing not only their civil liberties, but potentially their lives. Four people have died in the custody of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department since July of this year, including Ayesha Johnson, who was detained pending placement for involuntary treatment.”

Substance use disorder is a treatable health condition. Effective treatment includes voluntary, trauma-informed, low threshold care models which welcome people into care and provide a range of services including medication, therapy, case management, peer support, and harm reduction services. 

“While we share a sense of urgency about this crisis, an approach that leads with criminalization is fatally flawed,” Scott Weiner, emergency physician and Director of Brigham Comprehensive Opioid Response and Education (B-CORE) Program. “This humanitarian crisis calls for innovative, bold, and effective interventions. Criminalization has been tried for decades and it is ineffective, inhumane, harmful, and not evidence-based.”

Signatories ask elected officials to channel energy and resources into proven public health, treatment, and harm reduction strategies, including supportive housing, low threshold substance use disorder treatment, harm reduction services, and overdose prevention sites. The public health experts note that these efforts must be diffused and made available across neighborhoods and communities.

 “We urge our leaders wrestling with this crisis to focus on proven solutions to these pressing needs, said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, Medical Director for Substance Use Disorder at Mass General Brigham. “If our goal is to be effective and evidence-based, responses must be led by health care and social service providers, and not displaced to the criminal legal system. We as healthcare providers stand at the ready to explore how we might collaborate on effective, humane strategies to address this urgent public health crisis.”

Signers of the letter include: Elsie Taveras of Mass General Brigham Hospitals; the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine, Kathleen Kerrigan of the Massachusetts College of Emergency Physicians, Danna Mauch of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, Dr. Todd Kerensky of the Massachusetts Society of Addiction Medicine, Sarah Porter of Victory Programs, Philip Kassel of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, Carol Rose of the ACLU, Elizabeth Matos of Prisoners Legal Services, Katy Naples-Mitchell of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Linda Arian of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, and Cynthis Kussy-Goldberg of the F8 Foundation.

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