HOULTON, Maine — The problem of opioid abuse has impacted residents statewide, resulting in an increase in overdoses across the state, including Maine’s five Native American tribes, according to the head of a nonprofit prescription drug abuse prevention program.
The statewide increase in overdoses is why the tribes were targeted by Diversion Alert and the Husson School of Pharmacy as part of a new initiative called Wabanaki Pathway to Hope and Healing, which includes Take Home Naloxone programs in each of the five tribal clinics in the state.
Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, is a lifesaving prescription medication that reverses the effects of an overdose caused by prescription narcotics or heroin. The drug restores breathing, potentially allowing users to survive an otherwise fatal overdose. The take-home naloxone programs will involve prescribing the medication to patients at high risk for overdose, according to Claire Desrosiers, executive director of the nonprofit Diversion Alert program.
Desrosiers said Monday that the decision to target Maine’s Wabanaki tribes was made because officials at the Husson School of Pharmacy had an interest in working with the tribes. It was not made because the tribes are experiencing any more opioid overdoses than the general population, she said.
“We really began this partnership in October 2015,” said Desrosiers, who runs the Linneus-based prescription drug abuse prevention program that collects data on drug abuse in Maine for use by medical and law enforcement workers. “Through our work, the five clinics, Diversion Alert and the Husson School of Pharmacy have used this $100,000 federal Rural Opioid Overdose Reversal grant to get to work creating protocols and policies and are now beginning to prescribe naloxone.”
The clinics are located on tribal land of the Aroostook Band of MicMacs in Presque Isle, Penobscot Nation at Indian Island, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.
Efforts to reach tribal officials and administrators at the Husson School of Pharmacy were not successful early this week.
Desrosiers said naloxone will be prescribed to patients at high risk for overdose, including patients prescribed long-term prescription opioids for chronic pain, patients prescribed painkillers and anti-anxiety medicines and patients receiving medication assisted treatment using Suboxone or methadone. The new programs also will include prescribing take-home Naloxone for family members who are concerned about loved ones at high risk for overdose.
Desrosiers said Diversion Alert has budgeted 200 doses of Naloxone to distribute among the five clinics and has money set aside for more “just in case.”
Paul Sabattus of Presque Isle said Monday he is thinking of getting a prescription of Naloxone out of concern for a longtime friend, who is prescribed several painkillers that he has been on for “more than a few years.”
“I think it is a great idea that this is happening,” he said of the take-home Naloxone. “I believe it will save some lives in the long term.”
Desrosiers said officials already have heard testimony in focus groups about lives that could have been saved had Naloxone been available.
“We are aware of a story in Maine in which a young woman, who is 22, told a story in which she said that she lost two friends who could have been saved by Naloxone in the last nine months,” Desrosiers said.
Statewide, paramedics responded to 2,194 overdoses in Maine last year, according to Maine EMS and the Department of Public Safety. EMS crews administered naloxone 1,475 times. More than half those naloxone uses, a total of 787, happened in York and Cumberland counties. Penobscot County accounted for 154.
Those numbers don’t account for administrations by police departments or hospitals. To date in 2016, the numbers are roughly on pace with last year, with 708 naloxone uses by EMS across the state.
Grant funding also has been used to train police officers in all three of the five tribes that have tribal police departments, Desrosiers said, so they are fully equipped to carry and administer Naloxone.
“The final part is launching a campaign to educate the community around the signs of addiction and how we can help support people in their recovery,” she said. “We need to be supportive of people in recovery. Using Naloxone to save a life can sometimes be that first step on the road to recovery. Not always, but sometimes. And that is what we are really pushing for.”
For more information, visit their website at recoveryinme.com.
Bangor Daily News writer Nick McCrea contributed to this report.