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  • Maine police chiefs want to expand MaineCare

    Extending health coverage can help mitigate the pain and suffering caused by addiction.

    The numbers are distressing: 272 drug overdose deaths in Maine — a 31 percent increase in 2015.

    We’ve seen the devastating consequences of addiction and unimaginable sadness that comes from telling a family about the unnecessary death of a loved one taken too soon from this world. We know treatment saves lives and health coverage is important in accessing treatment. We see coverage as a vital community-wide benefit that can prevent crime, violence and suffering, saving our criminal justice system resources, time, and money.

    Extending health coverage to people with low income, most who work but often can’t afford coverage, would help them access health care, including mental health and substance abuse services.

    ADDRESSES THE GAP

    The Maine Sheriffs’ and Maine Chiefs of Police Association support accepting the enhanced federal health care funds to provide low income Mainers who suffer from addiction or mental health illness with health care, including treatment. With the federal government picking up most of the costs, it’s the most affordable option we have to promptly address the gap in treatment many face.

    Drug and mental health treatment is necessary, if not critical, to reducing drug related crime in Maine. People are dying of the torrid epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction. Mainers across the state are struggling to rid themselves of this disease. While more are seeking treatment with the goal of living a useful and productive life free of addiction, many face barriers to accessing the treatment they need to turn their lives around. The result is a costly cycle in and out of jail and a drain on our criminal justice system.

    Sixty percent of Maine’s inmates suffer from substance abuse and 40 percent from some degree of mental illness. Jails have become de facto triage treatment centers. It is time to change the way we are doing things.

    Other states are using the federal health care funds to treat addiction and reduce drug related crime. They are seeing savings and success in reducing incarceration and reentry into the criminal justice system.

    State and county corrections departments across the country have launched health coverage enrollment programs as part of the discharge planning process. Over 64 programs were operating in jails, prisons, probation and parole systems last year, enrolling individuals during detention, incarceration, and during the release process. If we are serious about defeating this epidemic, we must use all available resources, including those from the federal government that other states have seen success with.

    Washington State uses the federal funds to provide treatment to people who have been involved in the criminal justice system – services previously funded with state-only tax dollars that helped to reduce arrests by 17-33 percent. Replacing state funds with federal funds has created savings for local law enforcement, jails, courts and state corrections agencies.

    States use the federal funds to pay for treatment provided through mental health and drug courts. Maine’ 2014 Annual Report on Adult Drug Treatment Courts confirms our drug courts offer a successful approach to the challenge of substance abuse and crime but are underutilized.

    COURTS CAN’T DO IT ALL

    Drug court funding is described as being uncertain, in spite of demonstrated cost avoidance and benefits and that without funding for treatment, adult drug courts cannot be sustained. Federal health care funds could help pay for these services.

    States are using the federal funds to pay for inpatient hospital services provided to inmates and seeing savings. Ohio saved $10.3 million in in 2014. Kentucky, Michigan, Colorado, Washington and Arkansas have booked millions in savings. We are struggling to pay for the costs of jails in Maine, while other states are finding solutions.

    Inmates suffering with substance abuse have a better chance of overcoming addiction and reducing their chances of re-offending if connected to treatment. The federal health care funds could be used to relieve jails of significant health-related expenses.

    Not long ago the legislature passed the anti-heroin/opioid bill that began to address this terrible problem. Many legislators said it was only a down payment on what it would take to effectively deal with the epidemic. We can take another significant step in ridding our state of this problem. By accepting the federal health care funds, we will improve access to treatment and care. In the end, this will save taxpayers money and save lives, for which we cannot measure in dollars and cents.

    Sheriff Joel A. Merry of Sagadahoc County is president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. Chief Michael W. Field of the Bath Police Department is president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association.

  • Expanding MaineCare is an immediate way to help young people out of poverty

     Editorial by Karen Heck, a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville, Maine

    Call me a bleeding heart, but the fact that there are 15,000 children in Maine without health insurance, 1 in 4 children in Maine who are hungry, and 2 in 3 who can’t read at grade level makes me ashamed of my adopted state. Those figures pose a risk to kids’ well-being and to our state’s future economic prosperity.

    A decidedly non-bleeding heart organization, the non-partisan Maine Economic Growth Council, issues a report on 23 Measures of Growth indicating progress toward long-term, sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life for all Maine people future.

    One Measure of Growth the group tracks is the rate of poverty, because “bringing our poverty rates down is critical to helping create a solid foundation for Mainers so we can improve other outcomes like educational attainment, food insecurity, health status, and employment levels.”

    Another measure tracks Maine students’ level of reading proficiency at fourth grade “because fourth grade is the point at which reading should be established as a skill and students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

    The Economic Growth Council supports programs like Head Start and quality childcare as critical components in achieving higher levels of reading skills.

    A third measure tracks the rate of health insurance coverage because “health insurance helps people establish a relationship with a provider and access preventive care that can help avoid more costly and disruptive procedures down the road, helping people live healthier, more productive lives.”

    A fourth measure looks at food insecurity, otherwise known as hunger, because “the total annual direct and indirect cost of food insecurity (including poor health, lowered educational outcomes, reduced earnings, and the value of charitable contributions to address hunger) has been estimated at $787 million for Maine.”

    The 2015 Measures of Growth indicate Maine’s poverty rate has risen to 14.2 percent. In addition, 64 percent of Maine children are not proficient at reading by fourth grade — yes, that’s 64 percent — and the rate of Medicaid coverage declined from 23 to 20 percent, leaving 11,000 more children than three years ago without healthcare. Lastly, 24 percent of Maine children are hungry.

    Despite critics’ attempts to deny it, the data is clear about what works in creating a path out of intergenerational poverty. The lives of millions have been improved with an array of services that include Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, education and job training, and food stamps.

    Some of the people needing those services spent Christmas at the Mid Maine Homeless Shelter. Among them were 14 young children, two 18-year-old high school students working and finishing high school, and two students, ages 20 and 21, enrolled in adult education and working. Their wages at 25 hours a week are so low they can’t afford even a tiny efficiency apartment.

    Many policy decisions that would make a difference in helping these and others move out of poverty will not be debated in this short session of the Legislature. However, the expansion of Medicaid will be.

    Two Republican senators, Roger Katz and Tom Saviello, have reintroduced a bill to expand Medicaid to help the state address the current drug epidemic using federal rather than state dollars. The governor and the majority of Republicans are, again, dead set against this bill becoming law.

    Those who understand that the road out of poverty is one the government can make easier by taking a comprehensive approach that works, not by kicking people off programs, which doesn’t work, can stand up now.

    That means engaging in the political process, something many are loathe to do.

    However, government policies need to be in place to support those who are struggling with little or no work, mental illness, drug addiction and over burdening the criminal justice system, and our voices help create those policies.

    We have the opportunity in this Legislative session to make a difference in this one policy decision that will affect our children’s lives. Expanding Medicaid is something that nine Republican governors have joined two independents and 19 Democratic governors in doing because they know it makes economic sense for their states.

    Really, what other species abandons its young? How did we get to a point where we think it’s OK to have children living at the homeless shelter, while their parents work, try to go to school, look for jobs or deal with mental illness?

    While the animal kingdom relies on instinct to care for their young, we actually have research on the kinds of policies that make a difference in people’s lives.

    Our job is to overcome the voices of those who think the answer is punishing people for their situation. It’s in your own self interest to overcome your reluctance to write letters, talk with candidates and legislators, call the governor, and speak out.

    I hope you will join me.

    This piece first appeared in the Morning Sentinal 

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