DARTMOUTH — U.S. Rep. Bill Keating advocated for measures to reduce drug overdose deaths during a forum on addiction on Friday.
The congressman’s event at UMass Dartmouth brought together local treatment providers, law enforcement, and other stakeholders on the front lines of the crisis to discuss ways to stem an unprecedented wave of deadly drug overdoses.
“Are we going to try and save lives, or not act and let people die?” Keating asked the dozens of attendees.
More than 541 people in New Bedford have died of accidental drug overdoses since 2015, a recent New Bedford Light analysis of death certificates found. Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid, played a role in the vast majority of the deaths.
In an interview with The Light, Keating said he supports overdose prevention sites, also known as supervised consumption sites or safe injection sites, where people can safely consume illicit drugs under medical supervision. They save lives, he said.
The sites are controversial — the New Bedford City Council unanimously voted to oppose them in 2019. Critics say they only enable drug use, but Keating said that’s a “ridiculous” myth.
Asked which other harm reduction measures he supports, Keating said “all of the above.”
Speakers at the forum advocated for programs to increase access to sterile needles and make the overdose-reversing drug naloxone more widely available.
They highlighted existing law enforcement programs that take a non-punitive approach with drug users. New Bedford Police Chief Paul Oliveira spoke about the success of his department’s longstanding partnerships with treatment providers and faith leaders, who join plainclothes officers on follow-up visits with overdose survivors.
“We need to get to people before their next overdose,” said Connie Rocha-Mimoso, a program director for Seven Hills Behavioral Health, an addiction treatment provider that works with the department.
The department also has a program that diverts low-level drug offenders away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.
There’s still more work to be done, speakers acknowledged, as people continue to die of overdoses. Keating said he hoped the event would help local leaders share information and learn from each other’s successes.
“I’ll leave here and next week be back in D.C. fighting for some of these things,” he said.
But getting federal support for these programs is a challenge, he said. While he knows other members of Congress who share his views, there’s not enough support on the Appropriations Committee for the non-punitive approaches he’s advocating.
“None of these deaths from overdoses should be happening in our country,” said Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, who gave a presentation on recent addiction research.
It’s not enough to just push people into treatment, Volkow said. Harm reduction practices like overdose prevention sites, clean needle programs, and widespread availability of naloxone prevent people from dying before they can get to treatment, she said.
“We’re gaining time so they have a chance,” she said. “We need to keep them alive.”
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