More than 1,000 people working to address the opioid crisis in Maine met for a daylong summit in Augusta on Monday. Gov. Janet Mills says the goal is to foster collaboration between health providers, law enforcement and the recovery community to better respond to a public health issue that kills nearly one Mainer a day.
Addressing the magnitude of the opioid epidemic can seem daunting, but the focus of the summit was on hope. To reinforce that theme, people in recovery shared their personal stories throughout the day.
Andrew Allen of Portland kicked it off, telling the crowd of 1,100 people that he became addicted to opioids as a young adult after getting a prescription for pain associated with a partially torn disc. That prescription, he says, became an all-consuming addiction that lasted more than a decade.
“After 12 years, I had reached my breaking point. I was watching my mother die from Alzheimer’s. And my addiction was so bad that I couldn’t help but share her end-of-life pain medication with her. I had truly reached rock bottom,” he says.
Allen says he decided to get help. He called several hospitals, but no one knew where to send him. For two years, he tried to recover on his own. And then he got into an outpatient treatment program where a primary care physician oversaw his medication-assisted treatment and recovery.
“I’m now working full time. I have health insurance. I’m getting my financial life, my social life, everything back in order. It has allowed me to stand in front of you today to say I’m very proud of who I am and what I’ve become,” he says.
Some experts, like Michael Botticelli, the former drug czar under President Barack Obama and a keynote speaker at the summit, says Maine has also come a long way in its battle against opioids.
“Before Gov. Mills and her administration, I have to say that I don’t think the state historically has paid a significant amount of attention to substance-use issues and, particularly, this opioid epidemic. And I think Maine was really lagging the rest of the country in terms of response,” he says.
But that’s now changed, Botticelli says, most notably by increasing access to treatment through Medicaid expansion and by making the overdose-reversal drug naloxone more readily available.
Mills reminded the crowd of other efforts underway, including her executive order to train 250 recovery coaches to work in emergency rooms. She also pointed to a new prevention and recovery cabinet that brings together more than a dozen state agencies, led by Maine’s first director of opioid response.
“No longer will our resources be squandered or scattered piecemeal across departments who don’t, won’t, or can’t talk to each other. It’s all hands on deck,” she says.
And those hands include people at the community level. Mills says combating the opioid crisis will require multiple strategies and sustained efforts, and she hopes that the summit will lead to more ideas and action.
The most recent state data on overdose deaths found that 74 people died in the first quarter of the year. It’s a slight reduction compared to last year but, Mills says, no cause to celebrate.