Maine’s opioid crisis task force urges lawmakers to take action in 2018

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AUGUSTA — Maine needs to expand access to treatment and prevention programs and do more to stop powerful opioid drugs from being diverted from legitimate uses. It also must raise awareness among youth of the dangers of opioids and increase the number of drug courts if it hopes to stem the opioid addiction crisis that is claiming one life in the state each day.

Those are among the top recommendations of a special legislative task force that has examined the issue for months and now wants the Legislature to move ahead with actions.

The 20-member panel, which included lawmakers, law enforcement and health care professionals, judges, recovery community advocates and others, released a draft of its final 27-page report Tuesday. The report will be sent to legislative leaders with an urgent message.

“You can continue studying this, and I’m sure everybody will, but you have to take some action,” said Kennebec County Superior Court Justice William Stokes, a member of the task force. “Our neighbors and our families are depending upon the Legislature to take these recommendations and do something. The hand-wringing has got to stop in terms of, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ I think you have to take these recommendations and take some action.”

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Among the report’s recommendations are at least four previously drafted bills that were left alive but on the table for lack of funding following the Legislature’s adjournment from the first session of the 128th Legislature in August. Lawmakers reconvened for a special session in October but did not take up any opioid-related legislation.

Among the bills in the current task force report is one that was sponsored by state Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, that was carried over for the second session of the 128th, which starts in January.

Vachon’s bill would create a centralized hub-and-spoke treatment model, similar to one in Vermont, meant to steer people struggling with addiction toward the treatment that best fits their needs.

The task force is also recommending the state’s revisor of statutes go through all state law and change the wording in laws dealing with substance abuse, scratching that term and others including “addict” and “drug addicted baby” and inserting “person-first” language that is less stigmatizing. For example, these terms would be replaced by “person with a substance use disorder” or “person in recovery” and “drug-affected baby.”

The existing terms “used in the discussions of substance use disorders can suggest moral failing, that substance use disorder is a choice, or that a person lacks willpower or character,” the report said.

Other recommendations would likely trigger a round of new legislation, including bills to expand treatment and counseling for prison and jail inmates. The task force is also recommending a bill that would allow more flexibility of the use of cash seized by police in drug cases. The bill, offered by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, would allow the transfer of cash to other law enforcement agencies that provide case management and other social services to people with substance use disorders.

Mills, who participated in the task force meeting remotely by telephone on Tuesday, thanked the task force for its work and noted it was the third or the fourth such group she has participated in as Attorney General.

“I’m anxious to get going, to take action,” Mills said. But she also urged communities not to wait for the Legislature to address the opioid crisis. “Our communities need to remember the report of this task force doesn’t get the job done alone that every community needs to come together and address this problem and take care of their own…,” Mills said.

Lawmakers return to work on Jan. 3. They will take up opioid bills held over the previous legislative session and several new ones that have been introduced by lawmakers – some of them based on previous task force recommendations.

The previous task force was created in February, just weeks after the Maine Attorney General’s Office announced that 376 people had died from drug overdoses in Maine last year, a 39 percent increase over the previous year. Overdose deaths, driven by heroin and fentanyl mostly, have more than doubled in Maine since 2013.

A September 2017 report from the Attorney General’s office said drug overdoses killed 185 people in the 181 days from January through June, a slight decrease from 189 for the same period from 2016.

Current numbers for July through November were not immediately available Tuesday.

The February task force was not the first of its kind and was formed about nine months after a similar task force, established in the summer of 2015 by Gov. Paul LePage, produced a lengthy report filled with recommendations, some of which have been put into action but many of which still have not.

Current task force member Katie Fullam Harris, a vice president at Maine Health, which operates some of the state’s largest hospitals, including Maine Medical Center in Portland, also said those on the task force needed to stay engaged as the Legislature returns to work in January to ensure its recommendations are acted upon.

“I share the immediacy, the sense of urgency and look forward to starting on January 3rd when you return to make sure these recommendations don’t sit on the shelf,” Fullam Harris said. “The Legislature does have a very important role to play as does the (Department of Health and Human Services) and many departments in moving these recommendations to action and to saving lives, which is ultimately what we are all about.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

sthistle@pressherald.com

Twitter: thisdog

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