• Health Equity Alliance

Savings Lives in the Wake of the Opioid Crisis

Ross with Naloxone

The news released last week by the Maine Attorney General’s Office further confirms that Maine’s opioid crisis surges on. At 378 drug-induced deaths over 2016 Maine lost over one life a day to the drug epidemic, breaking the state record yet again for the third year running. The scene is grim, even tragic. But one Maine Organization continues to fumble their way forward through the Opioid Crisis, finding success in the wake of the cascade of deaths.

Based in Northern and Central Maine, the Health Equity Alliance unrolled their Narcan distribution program in March of 2016, made possible by a grant from the Health Resources Service Administration. Narcan is an opioid overdose reversal medication that temporarily staves off an opioid overdose. Access to the medication has been at the center of much legislation and controversy in Augusta over the last three years.

“For us it was a question of conscience,” Kenney Miller, Executive Director of the Health Equity Alliance recounts, “We could not in good conscience continue watch from the sidelines as this scourge claimed more and more lives. We had to do something about it.”

The Health Equity Alliance is Maine’s largest network of harm reduction services, working directly with people who use drugs throughout Northern and Central Maine. The organization maintains syringe exchange services in Washington, Hancock and Penobscot Counties, and provides community-based HIV and hepatitis C testing in every county except York and Cumberland Counties. “The programs we offer are built on a foundation of dignity and respect, two things that people who use drugs are often starved for in broader society. Two things that that enable us to build resilience among people who use drugs, empowering them to improve their health and wellbeing. It’s this strong relationship that has really helped our Narcan program thrive.”

Between March of 2016 through January of 2017 the Health Equity Alliance distributed 252 kits containing Narcan directly to people actively using drugs. Kits were accompanied by training on preventing, identifying and responding to an opioid overdose, as well as a postcard to report the results of using the medication. Of the 252 kits distributed HEAL staff has heard of 47 successful reversals, for an 18.6% reversal rate, far surpassing many clinical programs. No unsuccessful reversals were reported.

“That’s 47 lives saved,” Remarked Ross Hicks, Harm Reduction Coordinator with the Health Equity Alliance, “47 families spared the loss of a parent or child. 47 fewer deaths in the Attorney General’s report. The evidence is there: direct distribution to people who use drugs works. It saves lives.”

In spite of this dramatic success the program faces significant funding challenges to maintain this vital program. The one-year grant from the Health Resources Services Administration ended in October and the Health Equity Alliance has been leveraging unrestricted funding to continue to meet the ever-growing demand for Narcan generated by the program’s success.

Enter the 2017 legislative session. Once again Narcan access appears to feature prominently within the 160 pages of legislative bill titles released by the Legislature in January. Working closely with the Maine Harm Reduction Alliance, a program of the Health Equity Alliance,Representative Karen Vachon (R - Scarborough), has introduced legislation to help shore up harm reduction programming and bolster direct distribution of naloxone. LR 1579, An Act To Reduce Morbidity and Mortality Related to Opioid Misuse has been labeled an “omnibus harm reduction bill” by advocates. Among its varied measures this bill is expected to include funding for syringe exchange programs, which was stripped from a bill passed last year rendering it ineffectual, as well as funding for direct narcan distribution programs.

“In terms of funding needles and naloxone: As a state we cannot turn our backs and ignore the very obvious. To effectively address addiction there must be a change of attitude; a recognition that life is precious, it needs to be nourished, cared for, preserved and protected,” Remarked Vachon,  “Whether from the heart or from the wallet, funding needles versus treating hepatitis C is an economic no-brainer.  This fiscal note attached to this bill is penny wise pound foolish, and it has a bonus.  Not only do low cost needles at less than .10 each prevent the spread of Hep - C - which costs $84,000/person to treat, it provides a caring place for those struggling with addiction to come in regular contact with people who understand and care; and, when they are ready, enter into recovery.”

Every donation of $75 provides two doses of Naloxone to someone in our community! To support the Narcan distribution program at the Health Equity Alliance, visit www.mainehealthequity.org/donate today!