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Maine's New Prevention And Recovery Cabinet Meets For The First Time

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Photo
Mills with Department of Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty, left, Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith, second from right, and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew at the State House in Feb. 2019

Maine Gov. Janet Mills Wednesday convened the first meeting of her administration’s new Prevention and Recovery Cabinet, calling for a broad, coordinated response to the state’s drug crisis. The panel is considering public health problems that go beyond opioid addiction.

Maine Chief Justice Leigh Saufley and Attorney General Aaron Frey are part of the group, as are two public members, one of whom identifies as a recovering alcoholic. There are also doctors and other health care professionals at the table, as well as the leaders of several state agencies that Mills has tasked with developing new strategies that will recognize addiction as a disease.

“We’re not simply taking people into the emergency room, reviving them with Narcan, and sending them back to wherever they came from for potentially more misuse of drugs,” Mills says. “We want to turn people’s lives around.”

Mills acknowledged that the task will be difficult but pledged her administration’s commitment to find solutions.

The Chair of the group, Director of Opioid Response Gordon Smith, says one of its first jobs should be to assess all of the health data that various organizations already compile, but that he doubts are being shared.

“I don’t believe they have ever met, and so we want to bring them together to say ‘what data do you have in your database to help inform our opioid response?’” Smith says.

Smith says the state is not waiting until all of its long-term strategies are crafted to address the crisis. Several agencies reported on immediate steps already underway, such as making sure that all state law enforcement officers from troopers to marine patrol officers have access to lifesaving drugs, including the overdose reversal medication naloxone.

The Corrections Department says that it’s developing a program aimed at addressing the growing numbers of inmates that have addictions. Programs are also being piloted in several county jails.

And State Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew says that while opioid addiction is driving the crisis, Mainers are suffering from effects of a wide range of drugs.

“There are other drugs, and there is a relationship between addiction and mental health problems, so we view the opioid crisis as the tip of the spear, and we are working our way down into the broader addictions,” Lambrew says.

The Department of Education is taking a similar broad approach to development of prevention programs for all ages of school children. That effort is being led by Mary Herman, wife of Maine independent U.S. Senator Angus King.

Chief Justice Saufley cautioned the group that drug addiction has very individualized causes and responses should be tailored to address those causes.

“Everyone wants to throw resources at this crisis, and if we don’t do individual assessments and make sure the resources are actually being effective for the individuals and families we are seeing, we are going to repeat the problems,” Saufley says.

The Committee plans to meet quarterly but subcommittees will meet as needed, and state agencies have been tasked to adopt immediate strategies to address all aspects of the drug crisis.

Journalist Mal Leary spearheads Maine Public's news coverage of politics and government and is based at the State House.