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Health and Human Services Secretary Brings Opioid Listening Tour to Maine

Mal Leary
Maine Public
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, at lectern, at a Wednesday news conference.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has been touring the country to hear about states’ efforts to combat the opiate crisis. Here in Maine, Price was greeted by protestors, met with a group of health care providers and spoke at a news conference with Gov. Paul LePage and a top advisor to Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway.

Price and Conway were met with chanting protestors as they went into a meeting in the governor’s cabinet room with more than a dozen health care providers, state officials and others. Conway says the purpose of the tour is to hear about how states are handling the opioid crisis, which she says is a top priority of the Trump administration.

“The president has made combating drug addiction and this opioid crisis, where no demographic has been untouched and no state left spared. We know that he has had made it a centerpiece of his administration,” she says.

The meeting was closed to reporters, but at his news conference afterward Price said he was impressed by some of the approaches that Maine is taking in response the problem. He cited something he heard in the meeting from Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley.

“What she said was that we need to answer the question, ‘What’s the appropriate assessment for individuals who are addicted?’ to determine what’s the best treatment path for them. Because what is right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another,” he said.

Price says Maine is receiving $2 million to help fight the crisis as part of a $485 million initiative announced last month. He says he strongly supports the use of Narcan and other drugs that reverse the effects of an overdose, because they save lives.

Price deferred to LePage when asked about LePage’s legislation that would ask people who are given Narcan for multiple overdoses to start paying for those doses.

“I have also said in my bill that the first shot of naloxone or Narcan is free. I have no problem. But for the repeat offender, the 13, 14, 15 shots, they need to have some skin in the game,” LePage says.

But the Trump administration’s critics go beyond the chanting protestors outside the cabinet room. Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District called the government’s response woefully inadequate to address the increasing crisis facing the country.

“I am deeply troubled at how the Trump administration has proposed slashing federal programs that offer assistance for both the law enforcement and public health aspects of this crisis,” she said.

And in a speech on the floor of the Senate, independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine sharply criticized the administration’s proposal to nearly eliminate the decades-old Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Here we are in the midst of the most serious drug crises in the history of this country and the administration is talking about gutting the very office that is supposed to lead the fight,” he says. “It’s like if, in the middle of World War II, we abolished the Department of Defense.”

King says Maine reported more than one drug overdose death per day last year and that some other states are being hit just as hard.