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Medication-first opioid treatment model expands to half a dozen community health centers in Maine

Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith speaks at a news conference in the State House, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith speaks at a news conference in the State House, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Augusta, Maine.

State officials report that more than six Mainers die every week, on average, of a drug overdose. For the last few years, a low-barrier treatment model in Bangor has combined medication with layers of guidance and support — and it's about to be expanded into other communities in the region.

Penobscot Community Health Care implemented the state's first primary care focused, low-barrier treatment program three years ago. It's called the ECHO model. At Bangor's Bridge Clinic, a resident with opioid use disorder can go in any day of the week, get a prescription for medication and connect with a team that includes a peer coach, individual counselor and group supports.

"This is a medication-first model. We know that medication saves lives. Help stabilize the disease so people can be properly treated," says Chief Medical Officer Noah Nesin.

Nesin says traditional opioid treatment plans rely on the patient to follow through with care, but if they aren't stablized, and have no social supports, it's not likely to work.

"We're saving more people than ever. We're also losing more people than ever," says Gordon Smith, the state director of opioid policy.

Smith says Penobscot County is seeing a spike in overdose cases, and having treatment available immediately in both rural and urban areas can make the difference in an opioid user's outcome.

That's why the ECHO model is being implemented next week at six community health networks: Bucksport Regional Health Center, Community Clinical Services, DFD Russell Medical Centers, HealthReach Community Health Centers, Health Access Network, and Hometown Health Center. Patients will also get primary care at the clinics, from immunizations and screenings to care for other health problems.

But Smith says the multilayered approach toward prevention, treatment and support must begin with compassion, as opioid users often become addicted because of trauma in their lives.

"This is not a willful choice they have made, they are reacting to truly horrible things that have happened in their lives and they are truly deserving of our empathy and our support," he says.

The 12-month pilot project will be headed by Penobscot Community Health Care. PCHC reports the new network has the potential to serve more than 200,000 Mainers.

Corrected: November 12, 2021 at 9:32 AM EST
Community health networks offering new opioid treatment model updated.