Is Drug Abuse a Health Care Crisis or Law Enforcement Matter?

Maine legislators can't agree on how to address the state's drug abuse problem.

Maine legislators can’t agree on how to address the state’s drug abuse problem. Governor Paul LePage wants to target drug dealers, but Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves views the problem as a health care crisis rather than a law enforcement matter.

Meanwhile, 2 large substance abuse clinics in the state said they will close, citing lack of government support. Advocates for these centers criticized the governor’s office for not doing more to drum up funds for expanded access to addiction treatment such as methadone and Suboxone.

Gov. LePage Cracks Down on Drug Abusers

In a letter to Eves and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau, Gov. LePage called for action to stop Maine’s drug problem from worsening.

“How many more Mainers must die before you commit the resources we need to fight this drug epidemic?” he asked.

He noted that heroin deaths in Maine quadrupled between 2011 and 2014, and the state’s DEA agents were working around the clock to track down “dealers of death.” Gov. LePage also criticized the legislature for providing funds for only 4 new agents, instead of the 14 he had requested.

“Sadly, this lack of commitment shows you are more interested in playing politics than actually stopping the drug epidemic that is killing our young people,” he wrote.

Gov. LePage argued that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had plenty of money for drug abuse treatment, and funding for those services had greatly increased since he became governor.

“We need to go after the dealers—not the addicts,” he wrote.

Eves Calls for More Access to Substance Abuse Treatment

Eves responded to Gov. LePage by agreeing that the drug crisis in Maine is a dire situation, but noting that his focus is instead on improving access to health care and substance abuse treatment. He argued that drug problems stem from poverty, mental illness, and lack of access to care.

Eves also found it troubling that substance abuse treatment centers were closing due to lack of funding.

“Cuts in MaineCare [Medicaid] coverage and low reimbursement rates have already lead to the closure of one of the largest treatment facilities in the state, and we know that others are struggling to remain open,” he wrote to Gov. LePage. “Your administration claims that there are funds for substance abuse treatment that are not being used, but neither the legislature nor the substance abuse providers are aware of the funding you reference.”

Eves also called out the LePage administration for cancelling contracts with the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery and the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse.

Governor’s Critics Cite Missed Opportunities for Methadone and Suboxone Funds

Advocates for Maine’s substance abuse clinics have voiced concerns with the LePage administration, Bangor Daily News reported.

These critics pointed to a missed opportunity for the state to potentially receive millions of federal grant dollars for addiction treatment, including funds for methadone and Suboxone.

Maine was 1 of 39 states eligible for up to $3 million in substance abuse treatment aid over a 3-year period. For context: last year, MaineCare spent $18 million on methadone and Suboxone treatment, according to Bangor Daily News.

The state’s DHHS had initially expressed interest in pursuing the grant, but it never applied, and so the money was given 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,” Jim Cohen, an attorney representing a coalition of Maine methadone providers, told Bangor Daily News.

Maine was not granted “priority status” like 18 other states in the country, and its DHHS argued that the state did not have a great chance at being awarded the funds. Plus, grants like this take up an “enormous amount” of staff time, Maine DHHS spokesman David Sorensen told Bangor Daily News.

However, 3 states without priority status—Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland—did receive the grant money to expand access to addiction treatment.

Meanwhile, Gov. LePage has maintained that Maine has received other grants to help uninsured residents recover from substance abuse, but “hundreds of thousands of those dollars” have not been used.

2 Large Substance Abuse Clinics to Close

Mercy Recovery Center, one of Maine’s largest substance abuse treatment centers, has announced it will close, affecting about 250 patients.

One-third of the clients will stay with Mercy addiction specialists in a location in Portland, Maine, but the other two-thirds will be referred to other centers, The Portland Press Herald reported.

Marty O’Brien, director of Grace Street Recovery Services, another substance abuse treatment center, told The Portland Press Herald that Mercy’s closing will mean many patients who need help will turn to the emergency room (ER).

“The ER is not a place to treat addicts,” O’Brien told The Portland Press Herald. “It could cost $2000 per visit.”

Mercy officials noted that the center had been losing money due to shrinking reimbursements and clients who could not afford high deductibles through their private health insurance plans. (The center could not refuse treatment to patients who could not pay, according to The Portland Press Herald.)

Mercy also announced that 45 employees would be laid off as a result.

Spectrum Health System in Sanford, Maine, will also be closing this year due to lack of government support. Around 100 patients will be transferred elsewhere.

“We know our services are needed, but in the absence of governmental support for treatment, our hands are tied in this decision, and that’s tragic,” said Spectrum vice president of outpatient service Kristin Nolan in a statement.