Drug overdoses continued to claim nearly one life per day in Maine during the first six months of 2018 despite intensive efforts – from the State House to sober houses – to slow the opioid crisis.
There were 180 overdose deaths in Maine through June 30, down just slightly from the 185 drug-related deaths reported for the same period last year, according to figures released Friday by the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl once again ranked as the top killer. Of the 180 deaths, 61 percent were caused by non-pharmaceutical fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, while pharmaceutical, or prescription, opioids caused 26 percent of the fatal overdoses.
As in previous years, most fatal overdose deaths – 78 percent – were caused by a mix of two or more drugs, including alcohol, according to the analysis performed by Marcella Sorg with the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. But the proportion of individuals killed by either a prescription opioid or a non-pharmaceutical opioid such as heroin held steady at 84 percent year over year.
The grim news comes at a time when the state and federal governments are directing millions more dollars – money that is long overdue, according to advocates – toward drug treatment programs in Maine. It also comes weeks after newly released federal statistics showed that Maine experienced a larger jump in drug-related deaths in 2017 than all but five other states.
“One of the most heart-wrenching parts of my job is witnessing firsthand the devastating toll the opioid epidemic is having on the families and communities in Maine,” Attorney General Janet Mills, who is also the Democratic candidate for governor, said in a statement. “With nearly a person a day dying from the perils of addiction, we need a stronger sense of urgency to take significant action about this public health crisis.”
Maine reported a total of 418 overdose deaths in 2017, up from 376 the year before. Sorg, who compiles the figures for Mills’ office, pointed out that drug-related deaths often fluctuate and Maine typically sees higher numbers in the last six months of the year than the first six months.
Sorg’s report shows that fentanyl – which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine – continues to drive the death toll in Maine, bolstering reports from doctors, treatment providers and law enforcement who are seeing more straight fentanyl on the streets.
In 2016, 52 percent of overdose deaths were attributed to fentanyl, compared to 61 percent so far this year. And the percent of victims with only fentanyl in their systems – as opposed to a combination of drugs – is up substantially over last year.
Responding to the overdose figures, Malory Shaughnessy with the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine said it was “unfortunate that we in Maine have still not responded to this public health crisis, but it is not for lack of interest on the part of our communities.”
Shaughnessy said an opioid task force and a collaborative worked hard to come up with long lists of recommendations for grappling with the crisis but many of those suggestions have yet to be implemented. And she laid much of the blame on the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, which she said “has just never seemed to make response a priority, and in some cases has actively blocked efforts to address the crisis.”
“I truly do not understand it,” Shaughnessy, the alliance’s executive director, wrote in an email to the Press Herald. “People are dying and they are dragging their feet virtually every step of the way.”
The statistics come just after the federal government announced that Maine would receive $11.3 million in opioid-related funding.
Roughly 40 percent of that sum, or $4.4 million, will help pay for additional medication-assisted treatment with methadone or Suboxone through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“We are excited by the opportunities presented to us through this federal SAMSHA grant and we plan to utilize these funds to further expand medication-assisted treatment throughout the state, targeting areas with the highest need,” Emily Spencer, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. “Additionally, we will be investing a portion of this funding into opioid misuse prevention, through heightened education and awareness efforts.”
The remaining $6.9 million will flow to 25 federally funded community health centers, academic institutions, treatment programs and rural organizations “to expand access to integrated substance use disorder and mental health services.”
Shaughnessy said that while it is “wonderful” Maine will receive the federal dollars, she wants to see an accounting of where previous allocations have gone. She said there is no information on how two previous rounds of opioid-related funds have been spent.
“Before plans are made for what to do with these new dollars, it would be wise for the administration to sit down with the provider community and those in recovery to make plans that can actually work and meet the increasing demand for help in our communities,” Shaughnessy said.
Last year, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram published a 10-part series entitled “Lost” that examined the impact of the opioid crisis on the state. The series found that although many other states have been dealing with the same issue, the problem in Maine has been made worse by insufficient resources and a lack of consensus on how to best combat the problem.
Representatives from Maine’s drug treatment field said the state took a substantial step in the right direction this year when lawmakers provided much-needed resources for treatment. That included an additional $6.6 million to expand the use of the “hub-and-spoke” model of care.
That model, which has been used successfully in other states to reduce overdose deaths, integrates medication-assisted treatment with counseling, support and general health care services to offer a more comprehensive approach to recovery.
But they also insist that those were only first steps.
Bruce Campbell, clinical director for Wellspring Inc., which provides addiction and mental health counseling in Bangor, said there is still a need for additional medication-assisted treatment in Maine. But he said the state also needs to focus on strengthening “recovery support” programs that ensure people fighting to overcome their addictions have safe housing, steady employment and other basic needs.
“Those are real barriers” to recovery, Campbell said. “If someone is getting help but still living where these things are going on, that is going to limit their recovery (progress).”
Other findings in Sorg’s report include:
• The average age of a fatal overdose victim during the first six months of the year was 42.
• 71 percent of victims were male.
• Cumberland County accounted for the largest share of overdose deaths at 22 percent. But that figure mirrors the county’s share of the state’s population and is down from 26 percent of all overdose deaths in 2017.
• Just 8 percent of the deaths, or 14 out of 180, were attributed to suicide.