Editorial, July 26, 2018

Jul 26, 2018

No more Band-Aids

The opioid crisis is here.

It has been here already for a while.

It is not going away.

According to local law enforcement, there were at least eight reported overdoses this past weekend in Waldo County.

Eight.

At least one person was revived by police officers with Narcan, a brand name of naloxone used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Two of the overdoses were fatal.

Let's repeat that total: Eight people overdosed this weekend.

The high number is being blamed on a suspected tainted batch of heroin that's stronger than usual, an increasing problem across the country as dealers cut heroin with the much more potent fentanyl; users unintentionally overdose.

Any of those eight people could have been your neighbor, coworker, relative or acquaintance.

In February, the Maine Attorney General's Office reported that overdose deaths were up by 11 percent in 2017.

“Fentanyl has invaded our state, killing 247 people last year alone,” Attorney General Janet Mills said in a prepared statement. “When people ingest this powerful powder, they often believe it is heroin, and have been told it’s heroin. But no one should take a chance with these substances. Even as dangerous as heroin is, fentanyl is hundreds (of) times more likely to kill you. The equivalent of a few grains of fentanyl can take your life.”

According to the Portland Press Herald, drug overdose deaths in Maine used to be exceedingly rare. In 1997, there were just 34 — fewer than the monthly average for 2017.

The spike in drug deaths started in 2000, with 60 deaths. The next year, it was 90. The year after that, 165 people died. A majority of those deaths were linked to prescription opiates such as OxyContin, which was increasingly being diverted and abused.

From 2002 through 2011, the number of overdose deaths was more or less steady — never eclipsing 179 or dropping below 153.

Since 2011, though, deaths have increased every year. In 2014, a then-record 208 people died. Just three years later, that number doubled.

Locally, a handful of groups are making strides toward expanding services for people affected by drug abuse. Last month, a new collaborative effort that includes police, health care workers and social services workers made a critical link between doctors and corrections officers who historically didn't collaborate. The Waldo County Recovery Committee hopes to provide a deeper understanding of addiction as a mental illness, improve access to treatment, reduce the stigma of addiction, support families affected by substance abuse and divert people with substance abuse disorder and mental illness away from the criminal justice system and toward medical treatment and support.

Knox County, too, offers its own Recovery Coalition.

There is a group that meets Fridays at noon at Belfast Free Library to offer support for family members of those struggling with addiction and substance abuse.

Waldo County General Hospital offers its MAT (medication-assisted treatment) program as well.

All of these smaller, local groups are stepping up where the state previously has not. But these often privately funded groups should not have to shoulder the burden alone.

Recently approved legislation — vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage but later saved by lawmakers — is finally moving the state toward facing the opioid crisis and offering treatment options on a wider scale.

The first new law funds the creation of a $6.6 million “hub-and-spoke” initiative to align treatment and recovery programs to ensure that fewer people who need help slip through the cracks or relapse without intervention.

The money in the legislation helps pay for medication-assisted treatment — such as methadone and Suboxone — for the uninsured, who are the most likely to lack access to treatment. Some 400 to 500 people will gain assistance, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Also approved over LePage’s veto was a $75,000 needle-exchange program, part of a harm-reduction strategy that is meant not only to help stop the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV, but also to create new access points for entry to treatment and recovery programs.

The Legislature also approved funding for an expansion of the state’s drug court, which steers offenders into treatment programs and now operates in five of the 16 counties.

But advocates of Medicaid expansion argue that enlarging the federally funded safety net would be a much larger step toward progress. The Portland Press Herald reports that LePage is currently appealing a Kennebec County Superior Court order that he submit an expansion plan to the federal government, which would make another 70,000 to 80,000 people eligible for health insurance. LePage argues the state does not have the money to cover its share of the expansion, estimated at between $30 million and $60 million annually.

Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, proposed the drug court expansion, with LePage’s support, in an address to the Legislature in February.

The state should follow the local examples: Instead of each group offering its own Band-Aid, the larger goal should be assisting with full recovery.

 

 

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