March 24, 2018
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Maine opiate crisis task force says it’s time for action

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
In this file photo, a "finger" of heroin is carefully unwrapped from its paper backing at the state drug testing lab in Augusta.
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

A task force seeking solutions to Maine’s opioid epidemic finished its work Tuesday by recommending a range of measures aimed mostly at treatment and recovery.

The Task Force to Address the Opioid Crisis in the State’s report recommends specific actions by state agencies and the passage of several bills next year in the Legislature, but the chief recommendation from the group isn’t found within it: hurry.

Several members said during a wrap-up meeting Tuesday in Augusta that the time to consider a path forward is over.

“Our neighbors and our families are counting on the Legislature to take some action,” said Maine Superior Court Justice William Stokes. “I think the hand-wringing about ‘are we doing the right thing?’ has to stop.”

Rep. Anne Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, raised a question that has plagued more than one group fighting against addiction: “How do we reinforce how important it is that action happen?”

Drug overdoses have killed an average of more than one person a day in Maine during each of the past three years. Through June of this year, which is the most recent period for which data are available, 185 deaths were linked to drug overdoses and of those, 84 percent were caused by an opioid such as heroin or fentanyl. That follows 2016, when the total number of overdose deaths was 376.

The average age of an overdose victim in 2016 was 41, and males outnumbered females by 2 to 1.

The task force, which was created by the Legislature earlier this year, echoed a number of recommendations from previous groups, including the 2016 Maine Opiate Collaborative. That group, launched by Gov. Paul LePage, held forums in 20 Maine communities. Its recommendations included expanding access to health care and drug courts and focusing more law enforcement efforts on drug dealers from outside Maine.

The new task force’s recommendations include:

— Ask state agencies to compile data and report back to the Legislature. Some of those recommendations involve forming executive branch work groups, such as one at the Department of Education about how to incorporate anti-drug programs in public schools.

— Expand drug take-back programs that don’t cost anything for the participants, including education programs by the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Maine Board of Pharmacy.

— Direct the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the “hub and spoke” model for treatment and recovery, which is meant to establish more collaboration between treatment providers and people to help addicts navigate them. A bill to that effect is in the pipeline for the Legislature when it returns in January.

— Direct DHHS to increase access to treatment, including for inmates in minimum security correctional facilities.

— Develop recovery housing for people fighting addiction that includes medication-assisted treatment. To accomplish this, the task force recommends a work group including officials from DHHS, the Finance Authority of Maine and several housing and anti-addiction groups. There are at least two bills in the hopper for 2018 that address this issue.

— Develop diversion programs for offenders before they are charged with crimes, including drug courts, and increase evaluation of and services for inmates both when they are incarcerated and released.

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