Did Maine Policymakers Wait Too Long To Deal With the Opioid Crisis?

By Britni de la Cretaz 03/29/17

A multi-part investigation revealed the impact that policymakers, stigma and a lack of treatment options have had on the state.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage
Maine Gov. Paul LePage Photo via YouTube

The Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald conducted a yearlong investigation into Maine's opioid crisis, and are publishing their findings in 10 parts.

The first section lays out the reality of the drug problem in the Pine Tree State. It found that the state was largely unprepared to deal with the needs of folks struggling with addiction in such large numbers, and that it waited too long to begin to address it—leaving policymakers playing catch-up.

Maine Governor Paul LePage has been one of the biggest opponents to providing treatment and services for people struggling with addiction, viewing addiction as a moral issue and claiming that the state already had adequate resources.

He’s been quoted as saying that 90% of drug dealers in the state were Black or Latinx (which was later proved to be false by his own office’s report); he made racist comments implying that drug dealers named "D-Money" enter the state and impregnate white women in an attempt to explain how heroin makes its way into the state; and he’s implied that people who overdose get what they deserve in an effort to explain his resistance to making drugs like Narcan more widely available.

Attorney General Janet Mills had to go around Gov. LePage and use her own office’s funds to ensure that police departments had access to Narcan.

Treatment centers that have shuttered have even blamed their closings on LePage’s policies. In fact, as the report indicates, policymakers in Maine have made it harder, not easier, to access treatment since the crisis began. Not only that, they reduced reimbursement rates for methadone and made it harder to access MaineCare, which insures many low-income residents.

However, for reasons that are unclear, it seems that policymakers like LePage are changing their tune: in the last several months, they promised $5.5 million towards medication-assisted treatment for all residents, whether or not they are insured.

The Portland Press Herald reports that 378 people died of drug overdoses in 2016—more than half the number of people who died just four years ago. And 20 years ago, that number was just 34.

In 2016, first responders used Narcan 2,380 times, which was up from 1,565 just the year before. In 2015, about 15,500 people received opioid addiction treatment in the state.

Despite the progress, stigma remains. “I still think people have this idea in their head about who is caught up in this crisis,” said Dr. Mary Dowd, who works with people struggling with addiction. “It could really be anyone.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.