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AUGUSTA, Maine — A longtime lobbyist for Maine doctors and public health advocate was introduced Thursday as Gov. Janet Mills’ pick to manage her new administration’s response to the state’s opioid crisis.
Gordon Smith of East Winthrop will be the director of opioid response under the Democratic governor. In Mills’ inaugural address, she said her choice for the new position would “marshal the collective power and resources of state government” to stem the crisis.
In recent years, Maine has struggled to find an effective response to an opioid addiction epidemic that has led to a spike in overdose deaths in recent years. In 2017, fentanyl and heroin drove Maine’s overdose death total to 417 and 952 babies out of the state’s 13,000 births — or about 7 percent — were born affected by opiates or other drugs.
Mills campaigned on a plan to fight the opioid crisis. Her predecessor, Republican Paul LePage, sparred often with Democrats in the Legislature over how to allocate state resources between treatment, prevention and interdiction. LePage vetoed a 2016 bill to expand access to an overdose antidote he said “does not truly save lives” but “merely extends them.”
The Legislature expanded access to it and LePage’s administration took some measures to expand treatment, but Maine struggles with a low capacity for medication-assisted treatment. Many efforts — including a 2017 report from a task force LePage created in response to rising overdose deaths — drew strong criticism from addiction and recovery professionals.
Smith, who joined the Maine Medical Association in 1981 and has been an executive vice president since 1993, called Maine’s response “anemic” at a Thursday news conference. Mills said Smith would “knock down the silos” she said have prevented a strong state response.
“We’ve not had a situation here in recent years where the executive leadership of the state has been saying the things that Gov. Mills is saying,” Smith said, “that this is a chronic illness, these are our sons and daughters and they need to be loved. They need to be treated.”
Mills said she will soon issue an executive order outlining her administration’s initial response, including increasing access to medication-assisted treatment by partnering with providers and jails, establishing a “robust” hotline directing people to treatment and promoting prevention.
Smith has spent the large part of his career managing the medical association’s lobbying presence at the State House and serving as a public face for doctors in health policy debates, including several that led to Maine’s bans on smoking in many indoor public places.
He is from a well-known political family in the Augusta area: His brother, George Smith, is a writer and the former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and his sister, Edie Smith, is the former state director for U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
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