Opioid deaths drop 10%, but remain high (2024)

BOSTON — The scourge of opioid addiction continues to impact Massachusetts, but new data showed a double digit decrease in the number of overdose deaths in the past year.

There were 2,125 confirmed or suspected opioid-related deaths in 2023 — which is 10%, or 232, fewer fatal overdoses than the same period in 2022, according to a report released on Wednesday by the state Department of Public Health.

Last year’s opioid-related overdose death rate also decreased by 10% to 30.2 per 100,000 people compared to 33.5 in 2022, DPH said.

Health officials attributed the persistently high death rates to the effects of an “increasingly poisoned drug supply,” primarily with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Fentanyl was present in 90% of the overdose deaths where a toxicology report was available, state officials noted.

Preliminary data from the first three months of 2024 showed a continued decline in opioid-related overdose deaths, the agency said, with 507 confirmed and estimated deaths, a 9% drop from the same time period last year.

Gov. Maura Healey said she is “encouraged” by the drop in fatal overdoses, but said the state needs to continue to focus on “prevention, treatment and recovery efforts to address the overdose crisis that continues to claim too many lives and devastate too many families in Massachusetts.”

Substance abuse counselors welcomed the declining number of fatal opioid overdoses, but said the data shows that there’s still more work to be done to help people who are struggling with substance use disorders.

“While the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the commonwealth remains unacceptably high, it is encouraging to see what we hope is a reversal of a long and painful trend,” Bridgewell President & CEO Chris Tuttle said in a statement. “The time is now to boost public investments and once and for all overcome the scourge of the opioid epidemic.”

Nationally, there were 107,543 overdose deaths reported in the U.S. in 2023, a 3 percent decrease from the estimated 111,029 in 2022, according to recently released U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

In New Hampshire drug overdose deaths also declined by double digits in 2023, according to figures released in May by the state’s medical examiner and the National Centers for Disease Control.

There were 430 deaths attributed to overdoses in 2023, an 11.7 percent decrease from 2022’s 487, according to the data.

Curbing opioid addiction has been a major focus on Beacon Hill for a number of years with hundreds of millions of dollars being devoted to expanding treatment and prevention efforts.

The state has set some of the strictest opioid prescribing laws in the nation, including a cap on new prescriptions in a seven-day period and a requirement that doctors consult a state prescription monitoring database before prescribing an addictive opioid.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into the state from multi-state settlements with opioid makers and distributors, including $110 million from a $6 billion deal with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.

Under state law, about 60% of those funds will be deposited in the state’s opioid recovery fund, while the remainder will be distributed to cities and towns.

House lawmakers on Thursday are expected to take up a package of bills aimed at improving treatment of substance abuse disorders and reducing opioid overdose deaths.

The plan would require private insurers to cover emergency opioid overdose reversing drugs like naloxone and require drug treatment facilities provide two doses of overdose reversal drugs when discharging patients, among other changes.

Another provision would require licenses for recovery coaches, who are increasingly sent to emergency rooms, drug treatment centers and courtrooms to help addicts get clean.

Backers of the plan said the goal is to integrate peer recovery coaches more into the state’s health care system, helping addicts who’ve taken the first steps toward recovery.

Long-term recovery remains one of the biggest hurdles to breaking the cycle of addiction, they say.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com

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Opioid deaths drop 10%, but remain high (2024)
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