• Health Equity Alliance

Legislative Stand Still Will Likely Cause More Opioid Deaths

After the last regular day of the legislative session in Augusta, we are calling on state lawmakers to close the deal on critical funding priorities to tackle the opioid epidemic in Maine.

The legislature adjourned yesterday until veto override day, yet to be determined, with no resolved spending package. Party leaders will be meeting with Chairs and leads of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee in coming days to reach agreement on funding an array of remaining bills, including LD 1430, the “hub and spoke” bill modeled after Vermont’s innovative and effective approach to prevention and treatment.

Our friend Jane Field, Executive Director of the Maine Council of Churches said, "In our prayers, songs and conversations we pleaded with legislators to act now by funding emergency legislation that would save lives and expand access to treatment." 

“We are appalled that the legislature would adjourn without taking any meaningful action this year to help the thousands of Mainers suffering and in desperate need of help and hope.”

According to reports from the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 418 people died as a result of  drug overdoses in Maine in 2017. After four years of steadily increasing overdose deaths, the state has seen drug overdose deaths rise by 137% since 2013. This is accompanied by a dramatic increase in cases of acute hepatitis C, a virus spread largely through injection drug use, over the last several years. According to the Maine Centers for Disease Control, since 2013 new cases of acute hepatitis C have increased by more than 200%, giving Maine the fifth highest rate of acute hepatitis C in the nation, and more than  four times the national average. According to the Director of MaineCare Services, Maine spends between $18 and $24 million per year treating chronic hepatitis C.

During the first regular session of the 128th legislature, Legislators voted to form a legislative task force to make recommendations to address the opioid crisis. A bipartisan task force, comprised of Representatives and Senators from both major parties, paired with subject matter experts, the task force convened regularly throughout 2017. Their report, released in December of 2017 called on the legislature to pass and fund a range of initiatives from youth prevention programs through increasing access to drug treatment through pre-diversion programs. To date, while many of these recommendations passed in both the House and the Senate, most of them

remain in the hands of Appropriations and Financial Affairs as unfinished business, victims of the political wrangling over Tax Conformity and extending the legislative session.

While some compromises came up for discussion on Wednesday, April 18, including funding for LD 1430 a bill the would expand access to medication assisted treatment through a ‘hub and spokes’ program modelled after a successful program in Vermont, more than eight pieces of legislation intended to address the opioid crisis remain on the table and are perceived as having little chance of seeing the light of day, to the ire and outrage of many advocates from the recovery community and communities of faith.

“Our legislators have a unique chance to stand with Maine’s people in the response to the opioid epidemic and stop playing politics with the lives of our people,” said Courtney Allen, a Chapter Leader for Young People in Recovery and the co-founder of the only recovery residence in Augusta - James’ Place. “They must pass and fund the recommendations of the opioid task force this year. Our families will pay the price if they do not and 418 more deaths - the number of overdose deaths in 2017 - is too high a price to pay.”

Jan Bindas-Tenney, Advocacy Director, Preble Street says, “The legislature must act to address the growing crisis of opioid overdose in Maine. 418 deaths in 2017, is too many Mainers lost. At Preble Street we responded to 1 overdose every 8 days in 2017. We believe another reality is possible.”

Among the unfinished business left on the appropriations table are LD 1707, a bill to fund syringe access services in order to reduce incidence of hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections and connect people to drug treatment, and LD 1711, or the HOUSE bill, to create pilot programs that combine housing with rapid access to drug treatment to help people stabilize and begin the journey towards recovery. These are joined by a committee bill forwarded by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to fund pre-booking diversion programs that steer people away from the criminal justice system and towards community-based resources.

“The Task Force was convened to create a bipartisan political agenda, including recommendations to meaningfully address the opioid crisis. From our perspective, the task force’s recommendations are just the start of what’s needed to truly address this crisis. And yet we can’t even seem to muster the political will to push through this set of minimal suggestions,”said Kenney Miller, Executive Director of the Health Equity Alliance, and a co-founder of the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance, “I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the cost of inaction, both human or political. By failing to pass and fund these recommendations our political establishment is responsible for the next 418 plus drug overdose deaths. That’s a heavy weight to have on one’s conscience.”