Inside the Greater Lawrence Opioid Alliance
Opioid misuse and addiction have escalated into a public health emergency throughout the United States, but statistics indicate that the issue is especially prevalent in the Merrimack Valley.
According to the NIH website DrugAbuse.gov, the epidemic can be traced to the late 1990s, when health care providers prescribed opioid pain relievers at increasing rates based on assurances from pharmaceutical companies that patients would not become addicted.
The consequences continue to prove deadly, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse reporting the deaths of more than 47,000 Americans due to overdoses of prescription pain relievers, heroin and fentanyl — a synthetic opioid — in 2017 alone. That year, an additional 1.7 million people nationwide developed substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.
In Massachusetts, according to a report by Portland, Maine-based Market Decisions Research, rates of opioid abuse are “significantly higher in the Lower Merrimack Valley region than in Massachusetts overall. In 2018, the rate of opioid overdoses in Lower Merrimack Valley was 44.8 per 10,000, which was significantly higher than the state average of 32.9. Similarly, the number of opioid related deaths was 3.7 per 10,000 for the region, significantly higher than the state average of 3.0.”
The report notes that the city of Lawrence has been “particularly hard hit,” with emergency medical services responding to overdoses nearly twice as often as any other community in the region in 2018.
To increase collaboration and share resources throughout Lawrence, Andover, Haverhill, Methuen and North Andover, the Greater Lawrence Opioid Alliance (GLOA) was formed in early 2019 by representatives from Lawrence Leads, an executive leadership development program sponsored by Lawrence Partnership and the Boston-based Alliance for Business Leadership, and developed and delivered by Harvard Business School faculty and staff.
With Greater Lawrence Family Health Center channeling its 40-year history into the role as lead organization, GLOA is comprised of a group of community leaders representing health care, education, private business, social services and public safety.
In addition to Rich Napolitano, senior vice president of external relations and chief marketing and development officer at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, GLOA’s original members included Elizabeth Bennett, director of grants, community and workforce development at Greater Lawrence Technical School; Ann Marie Borgesi, senior vice president and chief administrative and human resources officer at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center; Michael Braley, vice president of operations at The Gem Group; Yesenia Gil, executive director of Bread & Roses Housing; Zoila Gomez, managing partner of Gomez & Palumbo LLC; Paul Smith, who was vice president of operations at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen before assuming his current role as chief operating officer at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center; and Christine Tardiff, chief operating officer and vice president of clinical services at Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley.
Lawrence police Lt. Dan Fleming subsequently joined GLOA, whose goals include reducing opioid-related supply and demand to achieve at least a 50% drop in crime, overdoses and deaths while enhancing educational programs, public safety awareness and recovery.
John Silva, president and CEO of Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, said the work done by the alliance “supports what our clinicians, frontline staff and recovery coaches are doing each and every day for those battling addiction.”
“Our hope,” he said, “is that the alliance will be seen as the driving force behind building a sustainable coalition and driving positive change in our collective battle against the opioid crisis.”
Gil, a first-generation American and lifelong Lawrence resident whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, said she “immediately connected to the passion we each brought to the issue and the solution-based approach we proposed.”
“The GLOA initiative is a personal one for me as the sibling of a recovering addict,” Gil said. “I believe that spirit, and having an amazing leader like Rich [Napolitano] and the health center, helped GLOA move closer to our goal of decreasing the negative effect the opioid crisis has had on the health and safety of our community.”
One of the first steps in improving the coordination of outreach and treatment services was commissioning Market Decisions Research to conduct a needs assessment and stakeholder survey of the upper Merrimack Valley.
Last October, the first annual Greater Lawrence Opioid Alliance Symposium drew more than 150 clinical and community leaders over two days at Andover Country Club to discuss topics such as patients in crisis, peer recovery, health care for the homeless, opioid treatment in jail, and services for pregnant addicts, new mothers and infants.
Featured speakers included Massachusetts state Sen. Diana DiZoglio and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan of Westford. Trahan, who shared the federal perspective on the opioid crisis, called the issue the “public health fight of our lives.”
“This alliance understands that,” said Trahan, whose guest at President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, Cheryl Juaire, lost her 23-year-old son to an overdose in 2011. In addition, Trahan said she is working on bipartisan legislation to standardize substance use disorder training and equip medical professionals with the tools necessary to fight the epidemic.
“Elected officials should be doing everything we can to alleviate the pain and suffering surrounding substance use disorder in our community,” Trahan said, “and I’m committed to that effort.”
While acknowledging that opioid misuse and abuse is a national issue, Lawrence Partnership Executive Director Derek Mitchell said the symposium provided hope for progress — and ultimately change — at the local level.
“If you can get the right people working together across sectors, anything becomes possible,” Mitchell said. “I can’t point enough to the role Rich [Napolitano] played in getting everyone to the table and speaking the same language in a way that allowed so many others to get involved. Kudos to Rich, and to the group as a whole, for continuing to drive these issues forward.”
For his part, however, Napolitano is also focused on the future.
“The GLOA team is focused on continuing to build a coalition in our region that is sustainable, intentional and actionable for not only providers and community support organizations, but also families and those in recovery,” he said. “This has become a labor of love for us, as we have all experienced how this crisis can affect each and every one of us, both personally and professionally. Knowing that is enough for us to keep moving forward.”
Follow GLOA on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GLOA4Change.