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Gov. Announces He Will Veto the Legislature's Proposed Drug Addition Bill

Maine lawmakers heard testimony today on the first of a series of bills to address Maine's drug epidemic.

Co-sponsored by legislative leaders in both parties, the bill allocates $2.4 million for the hiring of ten additional drug agents and an equal amount for drug treatment, including a ten-bed detox unit in Bangor. But even as lawmakers were considering the measure, Gov. Paul LePage was telling a radio audience that he will veto it.

Parents of addicts, advocates and police chiefs like Bob Fitzsimmons of Baileyville all lined up to support the bill that they say is desperately needed. Fitzsimmons says that back in the 90s there were eight drug enforcement agents assigned to Washington County. Today there is only one and Fitzsimmons says he's yet to meet him. Meanwhile, he says, his three-member police force is confronting a heroin crisis that is ravaging his community of 1,300.

"I've been in the bedroom when the mother calls me that her son has overdosed," says Fitzsimmons. "I've taken them off the bed, pulled through the needles and given CPR while she begs me to give her son back. It doesn't work. I've lost too many people."

There is a methadone clinic in the nearby community of Calais but Fitzsimmons says it's not enough. He needs more resources and says he gets frustrated that he can't help those who want help.

"I do what I can," he says. "I take them to Calais Regional Hospital where they can wait there for up to two weeks to try find a room. They get tired of waiting. There's no treatment there in the ER. They get tired of waiting. They get up and they go home. They go back to the same thing they were doing before. I haven't helped them."

The bill calls for spending a million dollars on a ten-bed detox unit in Bangor, $800,000 for expanded residential and outpatient treatment for the uninsured and $700,000 for annual grants to the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs to support peer recovery. But the Maine Department of Health and Human Services opposes the bill. Director of Government Relations and Policy Nick Adolphsen says there are concerns about the prescriptive way the dollars are being allocated to specific providers.

"For example, we question the presumed need for a detox center in Bangor rather than other parts of the state and the requirement that such a center be administered by a 'Bangor provider' rather than letting all Maine providers compete for the service if they desire to do so," Adolphsen says.

In addition, Adolphsen says the Administration opposes the provision to give what he calls "a non-competitive contract in seeming perpetuity" to the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs. In an interview on WVOM radio, Governor LePage called that aspect of the bill "unacceptable."

"You don't put in statute the names of the companies that you want DHHS to hire," says LePage. "That's what they did! They're by-passing the entire Purchasing Department, the entire process of RFP's and they're telling us you will hire this company for education and you will hire this company for treatment. That's just not who we are!"

Senate President Mike Thibodeau, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill, says the legislation is not intended to benefit any one provider or to bypass the RFP process and he expects that will be addressed as the bill moves forward.

"This is a vehicle," Thibodeau says. "Like any other bill, it's presented to a committee. The committee goes and does its work and hopefully improves what the idea was and I'm hoping that that's the spirit we'll all work together and get it done."

But Governor LePage says he's already made up his mind on the bill as it currently stands.

"It will be vetoed and not only will it be vetoed, they're going to have a hard time in the House to get two-thirds," LePage says.

A two-thirds vote being what's needed to pass an emergency bill, or to override the governor's veto.