BOSTON — Abuse of illicit drugs, including heroin, again posed a significant public health problem in Massachusetts last year with eastern Massachusetts posting a rate of emergency room visits involving drugs higher than that of any other major metropolitan region in the country, according to a new report.
The problems were particularly acute in Worcester, where lifetime heroin use was twice the state and national average, and on the South Shore, where researchers said one person died every eight days from an overdose.
The rate of emergency room visits in eastern Massachusetts for drugs surpassed that of much larger metropolitan areas in 2011, including New York, Chicago and Detroit, according to the report. The region also ranked first at a rate of four times the national average among metropolitan regions for emergency room visits involving heroin.
The report by the Massachusetts Health Council also found that violent crimes in Massachusetts were on the decline, with 8.5 percent fewer rapes, murders, aggravated assaults and other violent crimes reported from 2010 to 2011, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.
Council researchers said the report is aimed at providing a reference for policy makers and health professionals as they weigh the state’s progress toward public health goals and areas where improvement may be needed. The report included statistics tracking reasons for energency room visits across the state, including Northeast Health Systems, which includes Gloucester’s Addison Gilbert Hospital.
“The 2012 report confirms a clear connection between each of these preventable health statistics and the affect they have on the state as a whole,” Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council, said in a prepared statement. “We need to recommit ourselves to prevention policies if we hope to limit these devastating diseases. The trends show persistent health disparities between the poor and those of greater economic means and between racial and ethnically diverse populations. Public officials and health advocates have a responsibility to address these issues and help ensure better health quality for all our residents.”
Gloucester officials have targeted the city’s longstanding battle with drugs, esepcially heroin, over the last two years. Gloucester last year became the first city in the state in which both police responders and Fire Department crews are equipped with a nasal version of Narcan – a drug used to try to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, such as one from heroin.
Gloucester police have also stepped up their push against drug dealing over the past year, including through the addition of a second K9 unit. Yet heroin possession and distribution remains a common charge chronicled daily in the Times’ police logs.
For the past several years, slow economic growth and rising fixed costs for health care, pensions and other costs have increased competition for discretionary state spending, such as substance abuse treatment.
Lawmakers in 2010 voted to apply the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax to alcohol purchases and earmarked the more than $100 million raised from the tax to substance abuse programs. However, voters that same year responded to the appeals from small business and consumer groups and repealed the alcohol sales tax at the ballot box.
Other measures aimed at addressing drug addiction have included a bill passed in August and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick that seeks to reduce prescription drug abuse by strengthening the state’s prescription monitoring program.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, attending a national recovery month celebration in September, said substance abuse programs must remain a priority even when the state’s financial resources are stretched. DeLeo, of Winthrop, mentioned a $2.4 million increase in funding in this year’s budget for substance abuse programs, totaling $77.2 million. Lawmakers also restored funding for a handful of programs that went without funds during fiscal 2012, including substance abuse step-down recovery services and secure treatment facilities for opiate addiction, DeLeo said.
The report also showed a decreased in murders of 13.6 percent, while incidences of forcible rape were down 8.7 percent and aggravated assaults declined 10.1 percent from year to year.
With a rate of 428 violent crimes per 100,000 people reported in Massachusetts in 2011, the state remained the most violent in the Northeast, but such crimes were down overall — by 10 percent in Boston, 33 percent in Lowell and 24 percent in Springfield.