A task force of lawmakers, state officials and experts in health care and drug addiction is about to submit a report calling for education campaigns and legal reforms to fight painkiller abuse and addiction in Maine.

Even as that report is being finalized, however, Maine lawmakers are weighing proposed cuts in addiction treatment that would worsen the state’s drug problem and lead to more overdoses, crime and health care costs, experts say.

The so-called L.D. 1501 Workgroup will submit its report to the Legislature on Friday. Its recommendations are expected to include anti-addiction education campaigns aimed at both the medical community and the public, a law granting legal protection to people who seek help for overdose victims, and a requirement that patients show photo IDs when picking up painkiller prescriptions so the drugs don’t end up in the wrong hands.

“I’m very encouraged and hopeful,” said Bob Long, chairman of the task force and a manager at Kennebec Behavioral Health in Augusta. Long said there is real commitment to turn the recommendations into reality and to stay focused on the problem.

“These are solid recommendations, and whether or not they result in progress will depend upon whether or not (the Legislature, medical licensing boards and others) adopt them,” said Rep. Jon Hinck, D-Portland.

Hinck introduced legislation this year that led to the formation of the task force, which spent four months on the report.

Hinck said that more work will be needed, and that the recommendations on their own may not be enough to reverse a steady 10-year rise in abuse and addiction.

“I fear that one of the things you have to conclude, looking at the outcome, is that we still have a hard time finding the key initiatives that would be expected to make a substantial or dramatic change,” he said.

Long and Hinck agreed that the long-term success of anti-addiction efforts will hinge on whether there is money and staffing to follow through.

“If there’s going to be less resources in the health care arena, it’s going to definitely impact on the ability to move this forward,” Long said.

The LD 1501 Workgroup is one of two ongoing government efforts to address Maine’s prescription drug abuse epidemic. Attorney General William Schneider is forming a task force to follow up on the recommendations of a statewide summit on prescription drug abuse that was held in October.

Maine’s prescription drug abuse problem is at a historic high and considered one of the worst in the nation. Prescription drugs caused nearly 1,400 fatal overdoses in Maine in the past decade. And hundreds of opiate-dependent babies are born each year in Maine, often needing expensive detox treatments.

Ronni Katz, the substance abuse prevention coordinator for Portland’s Public Health Division, said some of the new recommendations would surely save lives. The recommended Good Samaritan Law, for example, would provide legal protection for drug users who call for help if they are with someone who overdoses.

“That’s the number one reason why people don’t call (for help), they’re so afraid of being arrested,” Katz said.

Similar laws have helped prevent fatal overdoses in Massachusetts and New York, she said. “They’ve saved quite a few lives.”

But Katz said that any progress made with education campaigns and new laws could be undone by proposed state budget cuts.

Gov. Paul LePage’s supplemental health and human services budget for the next 18 months would eliminate funding for residential addiction treatment programs, eliminate MaineCare insurance for many addict, and impose a two-year limit on some addiction treatment. Legislative hearings on LePage’s proposed cuts begin today.

“It frightens me to think about where we’re headed if we make these cuts,” Katz said. Limiting treatment for addicts will lead to more overdoses and emergency room visits and more drug-related crime. “Instead of putting people in treatment, we will be putting them in jail.”

Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction treatment specialist at the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook and a member of the task force, said treatment cuts would undermine other efforts and lead to some of his patients relapsing and overdosing. “Failure to treat doesn’t make the problem go away,” he said.

Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, a task force member, said the recommendations to be submitted Friday include better insurance coverage for alternative pain treatments, such as physicial therapy and chiropractic care, to reduce the use and abuse of prescription opiates. The proposed budget cuts would encourage more opiate use by eliminating MaineCare coverage of the alternative treatments.

“All of those (alternatives) are things that we should be encouraging, rather than prescriptions drugs,” said Sanborn, a former physician.

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