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At 4th annual opioid response summit, Janet Mills commits $4.5 million to bolster treatment

Gov. Janet Mills attends an event at the Blaine House, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Gov. Janet Mills attends an event at the Blaine House, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Augusta, Maine.

At Gov. Janet Mills' fourth annual opioid response summit in Bangor Monday, health providers, law enforcement, and others were urged to recommit to supporting prevention, treatment, and recovery. The epidemic took the lives of more than 600 Mainers last year.

That set a record number for the state, but it wasn't just Maine that set a record for overdose deaths last year. It was also the nation, which saw more than 100,000 lives lost. Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah told summit attendees that those record numbers don't appear to be an anomaly. The epidemic is accelerating, and if it continues on its current trajectory, the nation will lose one million people to drug overdoses within a decade.

"The opioid epidemic is changing," Shah said. "It's not the epidemic it was 10, or even five years ago."

It's changed, in part, due to the isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic, said Shah, which fueled drug use and hampered treatment. Another change is the prevalence of the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey says it's increasingly mixed in with other drugs, and the results are lethal.

"It could be one shot, your first shot, and you could be experiencing an overdose that could very well take your life," he said.

Mills highlighted some of the lives recently lost to drug overdoses — including a teenager.

"Hannah Flaherty was only 14 years old," Mills said. "A straight-A student. She loved to hike. Just a few weeks ago - just one day after graduating from middle school, Hannah Flaherty, 14 years old, died from an overdose. Fentanyl, of course, is suspected."

Some health officials now refer to overdoses as poisonings, including the U.S. Director of National Drug Control Policy, Dr. Rahul Gupta. He said the situation is urgent, and a top federal priority is to make sure that the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone is widely available. Scaling up treatment is another priority. In the U.S., Gupta said, fewer than one in ten people get the treatment they need.

"We really don't have an addiction treatment infrastructure in that sense that we do for diabetes or hypertension or heart disease in our country," Gupta said.

Even though, Gupta said, substance use disorder is a chronic disease. The Mills administration has efforts underway to increase access to treatment, including liaisons in each county to help connect people to resources and a program specifically for moms with substance use disorder. Mills also announced that her administration is making up to $4.5 million available to community providers to increase residential treatment beds. On the law enforcement side, the state is involved with efforts to stem the supply of opioids diverted to the illegal market. It's collaborating with the U.S. attorneys offices in New Hampshire and Vermont as part of the recently formed New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which will investigate and prosecute the illegal distribution of prescription opioids.