The Human Toll of Austerity, or What Got Left out of Baker's State of the State

During his State of the State speech last Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker congratulated himself on his commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic. He also congratulated himself on curtailing public spending in order to reduce the deficit without raising taxes. These priorities, however, are in fundamental conflict.

In December, in an act largely buried by the news around the presidential transition, Governor Baker unilaterally cut $98 million from the state budget, taking the axe to a wide range of programs. Among the agencies hit was the state Bureau of Substance Abuse Assistance (BSAA), which faced cuts of nearly $2 million. This money is neither an abstraction nor a rounding error: this is money that would be used to hire treatment and prevention coordinators, as well as to fund various treatment and community programs that directly combat addiction in local communities.

As a working paramedic, I see the devastating effects of opioid addiction on a daily basis. Opiate overdoses have become some of the most common emergencies we respond to, and many of the patients we treat have overdosed multiple times. While many of these people are successfully resuscitated (usually through the prodigious use of Narcan), an estimated 987 Massachusetts residents died of opioid-related causes the first six months of 2016 alone.

Baker made a step in the right direction last year when he provided $700,000 in Narcan grants to communities around the state. These grants allowed communities to supply Narcan to their first responders, which undoubtedly saved lives. While Narcan grants save lives in the short-term, the only way to effectively combat the opioid epidemic is to provide lasting solutions for addicts and to develop strong prevention programs that are visible to community members. By slashing funding to the BSAA, Baker removed resources intended to provide long-term treatment and rehabilitation to addicts across the state. These resources were also aimed at stemming the epidemic at its source, through the use of school prevention specialists and community outreach programs that can help prevent people resist the pull of opiates altogether.

Such short-termism has been a pervasive problem in state budgeting, as our elected officials fail to make the long-term investments in public health, education, and transportation necessary to guarantee that the Commonwealth for all of its residents. The Fair Share Amendment ("millionaire's tax"), which will be on the ballot next year (and for which many Progressive Mass members are volunteering), will be a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to do.

By cutting funding to long-term solutions, Baker has shown he has little interest in concrete measures to end the opioid epidemic. People are still dying, and most of them are young. Telling a mother that her child has died from an overdose is one of the hardest things I have had to do. I doubt that Governor Baker can say the same.

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