Report: Massachusetts opioid deaths continue to rise

BOSTON (AP) — Unintentional opioid-related overdose deaths likely rose for a sixth consecutive year in Massachusetts and fentanyl played a role in as many as three-quarters of the fatalities, according to a new state report.

The latest figures, released Friday by the Department of Public Health, show 1,465 confirmed opioid-related deaths in 2016, with another 469 to 562 deaths suspected to be from overdoses but still awaiting final confirmation. Deaths for the year could approach or exceed 2,000 despite renewed efforts by the state to confront the epidemic.

The report estimates a 13 to 24 percent increase from the 1,579 confirmed and 154 suspected opioid-related deaths in 2015. The annual number of fatal overdoses was on track to have more than tripled over a five-year period.

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While 2016 brought a decline in deaths blamed on heroin, it was offset by a corresponding increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths. Toxicology screens showed fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — present in 75 percent of the fatalities, a percentage that has been rising sharply since mid-2015.

“The opioid epidemic continues to threaten individuals and families all across Massachusetts and the country,” Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Baker promised his administration would continue to add treatment options for people suffering with addiction while supporting the efforts of law enforcement to “arrest and convict drug traffickers who prey on vulnerable people, selling them more and more deadly and addictive substances.”

Last March, the governor signed what he called the most comprehensive law in the nation to fight the opioid addiction scourge, including a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opiate painkillers. People often become addicted to heroin after first getting hooked on painkillers that were either prescribed to them or they obtained illegally.

The latest report shows a 15 percent reduction in the total number of prescriptions written for opioid painkillers in 2016, compared to the previous year.

State spending on addiction prevention and treatment has increased 50 percent since Baker took office in January 2015, the administration said.

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During the first nine months of last year, the number of incidents in which emergency responders used Narcan, an overdose reversal drug, rose 47 percent compared to the same period in the previous year, with figures not yet available for the final quarter of 2016.

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