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RUSSELL — State legislators, recovery coaches, doctors and people with experiences of substance use disorder gathered at Russell Town Hall on April 1 for about three hours to discuss opioid overdoses in rural Massachusetts communities.

State Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield), chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery, said the occasion was a listening session for a bill that would tackle the barriers to the treatment of addiction.

“The three hardest words for any human being to say are also the three most courageous words: “I need help,” Velis said after the roundtable talk. “And when an individual raises their hands and says “I need help,” it’s the system’s job, I would argue, to be there to meet that hand. And that’s what today was about, and that’s what any bill will be about.”

The roundtable was spurred by a December report from the state Department of Public Health, which said that “rural level 2 communities,” the towns farthest from urban areas, had the highest amount of opioid overdose deaths in 2022, at 36.1 per 100,000 residents, followed by urban and rural level 1 communities. Otis is classified as a level 2 community, while the rest of the southern Hilltowns, and Southwick, are level 1.

Locally, 12 Westfield residents and seven Southwick residents died from opioid overdoses in 2022. Among the Hilltowns, Huntington saw the deaths of three residents, Russell and Otis saw one, and the remaining southern Hilltowns saw zero.

Velis said rural areas have a lack of reliable transportation, which prevents people from getting to medical appointments or getting medication that could curb substance use. Other contributing factors include a lack of medical providers specializing in addiction, social isolation and labor shortages.

One major challenge, Velis said, was the contamination of drugs with substances like fentanyl. The DPH report said that when tested, 93% of overdose deaths involved fentanyl and 53% involved cocaine. Other substances include alcohol and heroin.

Among solutions he proposed included increased funding to transportation and making sure it exists, increasing access to recovery coaches, and using employment incentives to bring more providers to rural communities.

“In other words, if you go into substance use, if you go into recovery coaching, and you’re willing to spend two years in Russell or Montgomery, we will wipe off a certain amount of your debt,” he said. “I think that’s a really important one.”

He also criticized the state for not providing as many funding opportunities to rural areas, just because they have a lower population than places like Boston or Springfield.

“As we’re handing out funding sources and providing funds, we need to realize that just because you don’t see the abundance of numbers as you do in other parts of the state, that those deaths are still ripping apart families and every life matters,” he said.

The bill, Velis said, is still being drafted and could come in the next few months. Nonetheless, he said, there is bipartisan consensus on Beacon Hill that too many people are dying of overdoses.

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