By Ramona du Houx
Legislative leaders presented a $4.8 million dollar legislative package to fight the drug crisis in Maine on December 9, 2015. The bipartisan plan includes prevention, treatment and 10 more drug agents.
The drug crisis is huge in Maine and along with it unwarranted stigmas about addicts.
The number of overdoses in Maine and the country surpassed the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents and gunshots in 2014. In Maine 208 people died from an overdose, of those 57 died primarily because of heroin and 43 because of fentanyl.
The overprescription of potent narcotics by physicians, mainly because pharmaceutical companies promoted them, inadvertently addicted thousands of people. As doctors corrected the problem, the street supply of prescription narcotics decreased. Unfortunately, a vast supply of cheap heroin, often laced with potent synthetic drugs like fentanyl, replaced those prescription drugs to continue to supply the new demand.
“Now more than half of my practice time is spent taking care of drug-dependent people. I have witnessed how drug addiction is ravaging Maine… Addicted individuals are not ‘bad people from away.’ They are our parents, our children and grandchildren. They are our friends and co-workers and neighbors. They deserve access to treatment,” stated Dr. Gust Stringos, D.O., of Somerset Primary Care.
“We’ve crafted a targeted, comprehensive plan that addresses the reality of drug addiction in Maine. We wanted to focus on what was practical, what was possible and what is a good first step toward a healthier Maine,” said Speaker of the House Mark Eves.
The plan invests $2.4 million in treatment efforts over 18 months, including $1 million in funding for a new 10-bed detox unit in Bangor. In addition, the plan increases access to inpatient and outpatient treatment for the uninsured, and doubles the number of peer-to-peer support recovery centers across the state.
The plan also provides $2.4 million to strengthen law enforcement efforts, including funding 10 new MDEA agents and a statewide coordinator to connect law enforcement to treatment providers.
If the initiative becomes law funding is included in the bill to launch programs at five police departments around the state to be modeled after the successful Operation Hope, the Heroin- Opiate Prevention Effort, and/or the Law Enforcement Addiction Advocacy Program.
“This plan will provide critical support to law enforcement on the front lines and enable us to better serve members of our communities who need help,“ said Officer John Gill, who has witnessed the success of Operation Hope as a member the Scarborough Police Department.
Operation Hope consists of specialized law enforcement training, public education with outreach, and treatment with assistance as well as other services. The program has served over 50 people in its first 50 days.
Under the LePage administration drug treatment funding has been cut.
“I fear that more Mainers will have to go without treatment. This year, we saw the flagship treatment program at Mercy Hospital in Portland close for lack of funding,” said Doctor Stringos. “Patients who are lucky enough to get into treatment in Maine usually struggle with the costs. Many young adults have no insurance and do not qualify for MaineCare because of the governor’s refusal to expand the program.”
Portland parent Julie Lawson, who is currently in recovery, recounted her experience with addiction and the treatment she received from Mercy Hospital’s treatment program prior to its closure. “Because of treatment I’m going to be there to watch my son grow up. I’m living proof that treatment works and that it can save families like mine,” she said.
The irony, which was not lost on the Cover Maine Now! Coalition is that existing federal resources, with the ACA, would pay for many of the treatment services being proposed with the lawmakers plan.
“The plan is a good first step, and we are particularly encouraged that Republicans and Democrats were able to come together to find common ground and to move the state forward,” said Ann Woloson, a member of the Cover Maine Now! Coalition. “We also want to remind lawmakers that the most cost effective, comprehensive and efficient way to increase funding for drug treatment would be to accept federal funding to expand access to MaineCare.”
Gov. LePage has rejected the expansion of MaineCare, which could have happened under President Obama’s free expansion of Medicaid to states, with the Affordable Care Act. As a result about 70,000 Mainers do not have healthcare coverage because of LePage. In addition the state and hospitals would have been able to make money if LePage had just accepted the Medicaid funds.
State’s that have implemented the ACA have witnessed their economies grow. They also have more drug treatment options.
“Maine has an opportunity to harness significant resources to address persistent criminal justice issues, including drug addiction and the incarceration of people with severe mental illness who could be better treated outside of prison or jail,” said Woloson. “We hope the same spirit of bipartisan cooperation that lead to this plan can be a building block to providing health insurance to 70,000 Mainers, including comprehensive drug addiction treatment services for those most in need.”
Speaker Eves and other lawmakers have tried with various bills to expand Medicaid with the ACA but every attempt has met with a veto from Gov. LePage.
Now the drug crisis is unfolding under his watch and lawmakers that have proposed bills are determined to stem the epidemic.
“We stand with law enforcement, treatment providers, and parents in saying enough is enough. Over the next legislative session, we will work to implement these and other efforts to help keep our families and communities healthy and safe,” said Speaker Eves.
The proposal is on an accelerated track, as legislative committees will hold hearings and work sessions before the full Legislature returns on January 6, 2015.
The plan joins five other bills approved by Legislative Council last month that address the drug crisis. One bill lawmakers will consider next year would restore MaineCare reimbursement rates, that were cut during LePage’s administration, for methadone providers to 2010 levels.