AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage formally created a state task force Wednesday to fight prescription drug abuse and addiction in Maine.

LePage signed an executive order outlining the membership and mission of the 17-member task force, which will include experts in medicine and law enforcement.

Attorney General William Schneider has worked to assemble the panel since October, when he organized a one-day summit on the issue.

“I have really high hopes for (the task force),” Schneider said in a recent interview. “It’s a big problem for the state of Maine and it’s something we can make a difference in.”

The executive order cites “increasing and alarming rates of abuse” and findings from a newspaper series published by MaineToday Media in October.

“Nearly 1,400 Mainers have died from overdoses of pharmaceutical drugs in the last decade and drug-related deaths now exceed traffic fatalities in Maine. … (And) more than 500 babies born in Maine in 2010 faced opiate withdrawal and other effects of their mothers’ prescription drug abuse,” the order says. It says the problem demands a “coordinated, statewide approach.”

Maine’s Legislature also is focusing on the problem. Several bills introduced this week aim to curb abuse, with measures including requiring photo identification from anyone who fills a painkiller prescription.

A legislative committee that’s working to balance the state’s Medicaid budget is considering new limits on painkiller prescription coverage as a way to save money and reduce abuse.

“There’s a lot of public attention to the issue,” said Gordon Smith, lobbyist for the Maine Medical Association. “This is a huge public health issue in the state … and people want to do something about it.”

Under the executive order signed Wednesday, the governor will appoint members of the task force to represent law enforcement; the medical, dental and pharmacy communities; state and local agencies; and educators. They will focus on four tasks identified during October’s summit:

* Develop a long-term drug disposal program. Maine has led efforts to collect and dispose of unused medications to keep them from being abused or flushed into the environment, but restrictions on disposal have made the program too expensive to sustain or expand.

* Implement a program to notify doctors and other prescribers statewide when a patient is arrested for diverting drugs.

* Develop a public education campaign to reduce misuse and abuse.

* Review and improve use of the state Prescription Monitoring Program, a database that enables doctors to check on patients’ prescription activity.

The task force will report every six months to the governor, the attorney general, the public safety commissioner, the environmental protection commissioner and the Legislature.

Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, has agreed to serve on the task force. He said Wednesday that it makes sense to keep the effort focused on specific goals.

“It’s such a huge complex issue, you really have to identify where you can make the most gains with the resources you have,” he said.

Smith, the medical association’s lobbyist, also has agreed to serve. He has been educating doctors about painkiller abuse for years, and met with LePage recently to talk about the problem.

Smith said the desire to reduce addiction goes beyond the State House.

On Monday, he will take part in a meeting in Lubec to focus on prescription drug abuse in Washington County, an especially hard-hit area. Senate Majority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and Attorney General Schneider are expected to participate.

Smith was a member of a work group that presented more than 30 recommendations to the Legislature last month. The Health and Human Services Committee turned four of those recommendations into bills this week.

One says pharmacies would have to ask for photo identification before filling painkiller prescriptions, so that people couldn’t forge prescription sheets using fake names. Another would encourage drug users to report potentially fatal overdoses by giving them immunity from arrest.

Other changes are coming from the Appropriations Committee’s effort to close a $221 million shortfall in the state’s health and human services budget.

Some committee members want to preserve MaineCare coverage for addiction treatment, at least temporarily. A proposed two-year limit on coverage of the addiction-treatment drug Suboxone could leave hundreds of recovering addicts vulnerable to relapse.

The lawmakers instead are considering new limits on MaineCare coverage of painkiller prescriptions, to save money and reduce abuse. Patients with acute pain — not related to cancer or chronic illness – would have MaineCare coverage for only 45 days’ worth of pills, under one proposal.

The Appropriations Committee also has discussed a requirement that, as of 2014, all doctors and other prescribers use a six-year-old state database to check patients’ prescription records before prescribing painkillers.

The idea of mandating the checks was rejected by the Legislature last year, but seems to now have the governor’s support, at least.

LePage did not comment on his executive order or other efforts Wednesday. Last week, he told the Appropriations Committee that he had been looking into the problem.

“The basic issue (with opiate abuse) is overprescribing, and doctors are reluctant to be told” to limit prescriptions, he said. “That’s the issue.”

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

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