Maine substance abuse clinics are questioning why the state forfeited a chance to win potentially millions of federal grant dollars for addiction treatment.

The clinics highlighted Gov. Paul LePage’s administration’s decision not to apply for the funds a day after saying they were never informed about other federal grants Maine did accept to help uninsured Mainers recover from substance abuse.

LePage has made fighting Maine’s deadly drug crisis a public priority, announcing Wednesday his plan to convene a summit this month to combat the problem. LePage’s administration has stressed law enforcement crackdowns on drug dealers, while substance abuse advocates urge greater focus on improving access to treatment.

The state was eligible for up to $3 million in federal aid to improve and expand treatment and recovery services for abusers of opioid drugs, such as heroin and prescription painkillers. Maine was among 39 states invited to apply because of its high per-capita rate of admissions to treatment programs.

The money was earmarked for programs that help clients recover with use of medication, such as methadone and Suboxone.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services initially appeared to be interested in pursuing the grant, which was announced in March, said Jim Cohen, an attorney representing a coalition of Maine methadone providers. But the state never applied, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal agency that ultimately awarded the money to 11 other states.

“On behalf of patients in need, we’re disappointed at any loss of an opportunity to help people struggling with addiction,” Cohen said.

If Maine had successfully applied for the funding, the state would have received up to $1 million over each of three years. By comparison, the MaineCare program spent $18 million in the last fiscal year for methadone and Suboxone treatment, the most widely used medications for opioid addiction.

The Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery also questioned the state’s decision to forgo the funding, aimed at reducing illicit drug use and increasing the number of people receiving medication-assisted treatment that also integrates primary and mental health care.

The federal government gave priority to states that not only recorded high rates of admissions to treatment programs for opioid abuse, but also saw a dramatic rise in those admissions over five years. Maine wasn’t among the 18 states awarded priority. With 11 states expected to win awards, Maine’s chances were low without priority status, Maine DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said.

“Applying for a significant grant like this requires an enormous amount of staff time, and that’s why DHHS does not apply for every grant opportunity offered by the federal government,” he wrote in an email.

Still, three other states without priority status — Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland — ultimately won the grants, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Maine DHHS has accepted other funds from that agency, including the grants to help uninsured Mainers recover from substance abuse. The governor has said hundreds of thousands of those dollars have gone unused.

He chastised lawmakers for funding only half the law enforcement positions he sought in the budget to combat the state’s substance abuse problem.

“Gangs are trafficking these deadly drugs in our state, using other New England states as their operating base,” the governor wrote in a Wednesday letter to legislative leadership about the planned summit. “We need to go after the dealers — not the addicts.”

Cohen said his coalition applauds the governor’s interest in combatting the drug crisis.

“We hope that the participants will come from a diverse mix of treatment providers and we would welcome an opportunity to participate in the process,” he said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...