Despite facing one of the most serious opioid problems in the nation, Maine collected only 40 cents of every $100 allocated by the federal government under a $1 billion federal program approved in 2016 to assist states trying to deal with the crisis.
For some, including U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine, that doesn’t seem fair.
The 2nd District Republican is among the lawmakers pressing for a revision to the formula used to distribute the money so that small states with big problems — including Maine, West Virginia and New Hampshire — get more aid.
Poliquin is working with colleagues to convince the Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to revise the formula, said Brendan Conley, Poliquin’s spokesman.
Maine saw 418 people die of overdoses in 2017, an 11 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Most were caused by opioids as fentanyl overtook heroin as the deadliest drug on the streets.
“Maine has tragically been disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic, as so many of our families and communities throughout the state have been hurt by this crisis,” Poliquin said in a prepared statement.
He said the federal government needs “to get support to the states and to local officials,” including the money appropriated under the 21st Century Cures Act during President Barack Obama’s final year in office.
“Let’s make sure we are smart about how the funding is being distributed so states like Maine with smaller overall populations, but with higher rates of impact, are getting as much support as possible,” Poliquin said.
In the first year of the program, Maine got $2 million of more than $485 million handed out under the program, one of a number of small states with big problems that some said were shortchanged by the formula bureaucrats relied on. It expects to receive about the same when the second-year distribution is made in the spring.
Maine’s allocation almost exactly matches its share of the overall national population, an indication that the especially heavy toll from drugs in the Pine Tree State is not much of a factor in the formula the federal government is using.
Though many called for a revised formula, President Donald Trump’s administration announced in late October it would stick with the existing formula for the second year’s aid distribution.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the grant program was “a significant component of the Trump administration’s efforts to combat the nation’s opioid crisis and is critical for achieving the president’s goals of supporting a comprehensive array of evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery services.”
It said the formula it used “takes into account the needs of each jurisdiction, including the number of overdose deaths and people with an unmet need for treatment.” It also said that many states asked for funding levels to remain the same “to ensure continuity of services to people needing treatment.”
Two members of Congress — Ann Kuster, D-N.H., and Evan Jenkins, R-W.V. — immediately introduced the Federal Opioid Response Fairness Act, a bill that seeks to revise the formula to boost assistance for smaller states. Poliquin signed on as a co-sponsor six weeks later.
Kuster and Jenkins said the formula used to hand out the money relied too heavily on population rather than taking into account that some states with smaller populations were suffering disproportionately.
Federal agencies “must prioritize helping the states struggling the most,” Jenkins said in a prepared statement. “This legislation will make sure that West Virginia and other states hardest hit by the drug crisis get the resources they need to truly make an impact in combating this epidemic.”
Poliquin and his allies hope to convince colleagues on the appropriations panel to include the formula changes in a major spending bill that lawmakers are putting together soon, Conley said Thursday. It would fund the government through the rest of the 2018 fiscal year.
Because the measure has to pass, “the lawmakers see this as a conceivable way” to have their formula adjustments implemented, Conley said.
“The lawmakers are using their bill as a blueprint in pushing the Appropriations Committee to add a change to the formula,” he said.
A Senate bill taking aim at the same issue has eight co-sponsors, including U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent. King is also backing another proposal that would add $10 billion to the effort during the next five years.
“As the opioid epidemic continues to ravage communities in Maine and across the country, the federal government’s response has not matched the severity of the threat,” King said in a prepared statement.
He said the Senate measure “would help states and tribes access the funds they need to adequately respond to this epidemic, particularly in high-need states like Maine; put simply, this bill can help save lives.”
Poliquin, a founding member of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force in Congress, has come under heavy criticism from Democrats who say he’s done too little to combat the opioid crisis in his home state.
But Poliquin maintains he’s done everything he can to devote resources and attention to the issue.
Not long ago, he said it is “not a partisan issue, and it’s vital we work together as lawmakers from across the aisle and from all different parts of our country to continue our work to address this urgent matter in the days, weeks and months ahead.”
“As someone who grew up in a health care family with my mother working as a nurse and having lost my own brother to substance abuse, I understand firsthand the seriousness and horror of this epidemic in Maine,” Poliquin said.
Opioid deaths per capita, by state (CDC)