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Panel meets on rural overdoses in Massachusetts, legislator looks to craft bill

State Senator John Velis of Westfield outside of Russell Town Hall.
Adam Frenier
State Senator John Velis of Westfield outside of Russell Town Hall.

A panel of lawmakers, health experts and town officials met in Russell Monday to discuss how to curb rising opioid overdose deaths in rural Massachusetts communities.

The number of people dying from overdoses in these areas is dramatically higher than it was about a decade ago according to state public health data. And the issue has become acute in the state’s least densely populated communities. In 2022, the rate was 36.1 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents. That’s higher than the rate for urban communities. Ten years ago, it was closer to 20 per 100,000 residents.

State Sen. John Velis, D- Westfield, chairs a legislative committee on mental health and substance use. After the discussion, he said one roadblock for people seeking treatment is limited or unreliable transportation to get to appointments.

"If you're late to get, let's say, methadone, you miss the time period you're allocated to go there, you might not get it," Velis said. "And guess what happens if a person doesn't get their medication assisted treatment? Chances are they're going to go back out and they're going to use."

Velis said besides discussing the issues at the meeting, he also wanted input on what should be provided in a potential bill to deal with the overdose crisis.

"Today was providers, today was people with lived experience, recovery coaches, and just finding out what are the impediments, what are the barriers that prevent you from doing your job well and saving more people," he said. "We heard a lot about that."

Velis believes more funding, especially for western Massachusetts, could be a key component of any legislation. He said given its smaller population than its neighbors to the east, the region often does not get enough attention-or money.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.