AUGUSTA — Legislative leaders Friday endorsed Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to hold a drug summit at the end of the month, but Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves quickly turned to accusing the governor of contributing to the problem through his policy positions.
Eves and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau requested that they and other members of the Legislature be included in the summit, which LePage intends to hold in the final week of August but has not yet been publicly scheduled.
Eves wrote that LePage has focused too much on the law enforcement side of drug abuse and not enough on treatment, including LePage’s refusal to allow Medicaid expansion, which Eves said would fund drug addiction treatment programs for thousands of Mainers.
“When people, especially those living on the margins, lose access to health care they have nowhere to turn,” Eves wrote. “Over the past four years under your administration, we’ve seen thousands of families lose health care, including access to drug treatment, and we’ve seen substance abuse treatment centers close for lack of funding.”
On Wednesday, LePage announced he would convene state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, addiction treatment and recovery specialists to discuss Maine’s drug problem — specifically the abuse of opioids, which has always been among the worst in the country but has intensified recently with a flood of heroin into the state. LePage announced the summit shortly after the news that there were 14 heroin overdoses over a 24-hour period in Portland earlier this week.
Eves and Democrats have supported LePage’s call for funding to hire more drug investigators, prosecutors and judges but cut the governor’s original request in half on the argument that more resources need to be spent on addiction treatment.
Eves accused LePage of a “false attack” on the Legislature for failing to fund the additional law enforcement officers and criticized him for opposing bills that banned the use of acetyl fentanyl and certain overdose medications.
“We took all of these steps over your objections,” Eves wrote.
LePage said in a response letter Friday that although he has opposed certain programs, Maine already is investing heavily in addiction treatment.
“Mr. Speaker, I’m concerned in your response that you continue to ignore the substantial resources my administration has poured into the treatment side of this problem,” LePage wrote. “We spent nearly $70 million last year on treatment and services for those addicted to drugs.”
Thibodeau joined Eves in calling for a multipronged approach to the problem.
“Maine needs a comprehensive, statewide effort that includes law enforcement efforts and effective treatment,” Thibodeau wrote. “It is not acceptable to ignore this growing epidemic and it must be addressed. Convening a summit to further study this issue is an excellent step forward and I appreciate your work to bring people together for this purpose.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Friday that several experts and officials have agreed to attend the summit but that the list has not yet been made public. She said the summit would not be open to the public or the media.
This isn’t the first time LePage has called a drug summit. In 2013, he held closed-door sessions with law enforcement officials in Westbrook and Auburn.