Drug overdose deaths declined in Maine last year for the first time since 2011.

But the data released Thursday show overdoses still claimed one Mainer nearly every day in 2018, and deaths from methamphetamine have increased, even as those related to other drugs have decreased.

“Also of significant concern is that there is no evidence to suggest that fewer Mainers are suffering from opioid use disorder,” Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said. “Individuals, families, and communities continue to be harmed by this public health epidemic, and work must continue to address this crisis.”

There were 354 drug deaths in Maine in 2018.  That number is down by 63 – or 15 percent – from 2017, when  the state experienced a record 417 deaths, the highest point in the prolonged and devastating opioid crisis.

Nearly three-quarters of those who died from overdoses last year were men. Their average age was 42 – a reminder that many who die leave children behind. The gender and age breakdowns are consistent with previous years.

While the report identified deaths in every Maine county, a quarter took place in Cumberland County. Penobscot and York counties each accounted for 15 percent.

The Attorney General’s Office released its final report on drug overdose deaths in 2018 on Thursday. The total is slightly less than the projection released earlier this year. The document is authored by Dr. Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and relies on data from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

State officials have said the slight decrease does not represent an end to the public health crisis.

“It is welcome news that the number of people losing their lives to drug overdoses has decreased, but the opioid epidemic still presents a serious public health threat to our state,” Gov. Janet Mills said. “My administration will continue to do all we can to combat this crisis, save lives, and repair families and communities. We will not rest in our determination to end this epidemic.”

In the first months of her term, Mills has signaled an approach to the crisis that differs in both substance and tone from that of her predecessor, Paul LePage.

Earlier this year, Mills signed a $1.6 million executive order that outlined immediate steps her administration will take to address the problem. Those actions include purchasing 35,000 doses of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to be distributed across the state; integrating medication-assisted treatment into the criminal justice system, including jails and prisons; and creating a statewide network of 250 recovery coaches, including 10 full-time coaches assigned to hospital emergency rooms, who will guide people as they navigate their struggle with substance use disorder.

Her proposed two-year budget includes an additional $5.5 million for existing treatment programs, as well as increasing the weekly reimbursement rate for methadone and repealing the two-year time limit for Suboxone under MaineCare. The funding would come from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is the state’s tobacco settlement account.

“While this report shows improvement, the number of people we lost to this crisis last year is still alarming,” said Gordon Smith, who was appointed by Mills as the state’s first director of opioid response. “We will continue to harness the collective power of state government and community partners to strengthen prevention and recovery efforts and ensure that we leave no stone unturned as we combat this scourge.”

Bob Fowler, executive director of Milestone Recovery, which includes a detox facility in Portland and a residential treatment program in Old Orchard Beach, said he believes greater access to naloxone and the expansion of MaineCare have helped reduce the number of overdose deaths.

“I think we will continue to see a trend in the right direction,” Fowler said. “We surely can’t look at 354 and feel good about it. It seems wrong to celebrate that as a victory.”

But treatment options for patients who are leaving detox are limited, Fowler said, and people who newly have health insurance are still encountering wait lists. He said he would like to see a statewide assessment of the resources that are currently available to help people experiencing substance use disorder, homelessness and other related concerns.

“I’m hoping there will be a systematic review of what exists and what the needs are, and that resources will be put to build out a whole system of care across the state,” Fowler said.

One of the lives lost in Maine last year was 25-year-old Maxwell Rodimon.

Maxwell Rodimon, 25, died of an overdose in June. Photo courtesy of Mary Rodimon

His mother, Mary Rodimon, said her son loved playing guitar, recording music and cooking. He worked as a chef in area restaurants, cooked special meals for his family and dreamed of attending culinary school in New York.

“We miss him all the time,” Mary Rodimon said. “It’s really a difficult thing, losing a child from substances, because there’s always this guilt feeling that you didn’t do enough.”

A doctor prescribed her son painkillers after knee surgery when he was 17 years old. His struggle with substance use began then, Mary Rodimon said, although the family did not know right away.

When a friend contacted his parents in fear for Rodimon’s life, his mother took a leave of absence from work to support him. He tried to get help, and was in and out of different treatment programs in Maine and Florida over the years. His parents did not know he started using again until he overdosed on heroin and fentanyl one terrible June night at his family’s North Yarmouth home.

As they struggled to cope with their son’s loss, Mary and Jim Rodimon attended meetings in Augusta for a support group called GRASP – Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing. They decided to start a chapter in Portland, which meets weekly at the Portland Recovery Community Center. Mary Rodimon said she wishes every community in the state could have a similar recovery center, because she and her husband have found needed support there.

“Parents need to be very educated,” she said. “They really need to understand that this is a life-or-death situation. It’s not just a trivial thing, or something they can quit easily. It’s a horrific thing.”

Drug overdose deaths have been rising steadily in the United States for several years, but the increase in Maine was more acute than most other states.

The last time drug deaths went down from year to year in Maine was 2011, when 155 people died from overdoses. That was a 7 percent decrease from the previous year.

Between 2013 and 2014, overdose deaths rose 16 percent – from 179 to 208 – the third-highest increase in any state. The following year, 272 Mainers died from overdoses, again putting the state near the top for increases, behind only New Hampshire, North Dakota and Massachusetts.

From 2015 to 2016, Maine saw another major increase – 35 percent, bringing the total to 378 deaths. That ranked Maine sixth among all states for annual percent increase and well above the nationwide increase of 21 percent.

And in 2017, Maine’s increase of 20 percent was seventh among states and double the 10 percent increase nationwide.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet published data on drug overdose deaths in 2018.

“Maine is not the only state seeing a reduction in overdoses,” Sorg wrote in the report’s executive summary. “The across-the-board reduction in both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical drug deaths suggests broad influences are impacting overdose rates, for example, economic changes, the composition and combination of drugs being trafficked, and regional law enforcement efforts, as well as specific policy changes around opioids.”

The report showed opioids – in particular, non-pharmaceutical opioids such as fentanyl and heroin – continued to cause the majority of drug deaths in Maine. But those numbers are slightly down from the previous year. Fentanyl and its analogs caused 217 deaths, a 12 percent decrease from 2017. Heroin caused 74 deaths, a 16 percent decrease.

Cocaine was involved in 90 deaths, a quarter of the total and a 1 percent decrease from 2017. The drug was also present in a third of fentanyl and heroin deaths.

Deaths due to methamphetamine rose to 26, a 62 percent increase from 16 deaths in 2017.

“It is important to point out that reductions in deaths may represent a decline in the lethality of specific drugs and how they are being used,” Sorg wrote. “It does not necessarily indicate a reduction in the number of individuals with opioid use disorder. Patterns of use may be changing.”

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
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