House Speaker Mark Eves challenged Gov. Paul LePage on his approach to Maine’s growing heroin problem on Friday, saying the governor needs to bolster drug treatment programs and not just beef up anti-drug law enforcement.

In a letter to LePage on Friday, Eves urged the governor “to view this drug crisis as a health care crisis not just a matter for law enforcement.” While Eves commended LePage for announcing plans for a summit to address Maine’s heroin and opiate problem, he criticized the governor for recent proposals to cut MaineCare funding for treatment and appeared to question administration statements that “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in treatment funds have gone unused.

“Your administration claims that there are funds for substance abuse treatment that are not being used, but neither the Legislature nor the substance abuse providers are aware of the funding you reference,” wrote Eves, D-North Berwick, a professional counselor. “We are interested in learning more about that.”

Eves was responding to an Aug. 5 letter LePage sent to him and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport. In that letter, LePage cited the 14 opiate-related overdoses that occurred in Portland in a recent 24-hour period and repeated that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has drug treatment money available even for those without private insurance or coverage through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

The governor also criticized the Legislature for not fulfilling his entire request for seven new drug agents and eight additional judges and prosecutors in the two-year, $6.7 billion budget that passed the Legislature in June. Lawmakers allocated money for six agents and two new drug prosecutors.

“Now it’s time to dedicate the adequate resources we need to fund the law enforcement side of the problem,” LePage wrote. “I will be convening a group of top officials from state, local and federal law enforcement agencies to discuss what resources we need, where they need to be deployed and how to get them into action immediately.”

Eves, who currently has a civil rights lawsuit pending against LePage over the governor’s intervention in Eves’ hiring by the Good Will-Hinckley nonprofit, wrote in turn that he was troubled to learn that the administration was canceling contracts with two nonprofits that work with DHHS on substance abuse issues.

“The drug crisis in our state requires a comprehensive approach,” Eves wrote. “We cannot only focus on one side of the coin or the other. Substance abuse treatment alone or law enforcement alone won’t get us over the finish line.”

LePage fired back Friday afternoon in a second letter to Eves and Thibodeau, who had sent his own response separate from Eves.

“Mr. Speaker, I’m concerned in your response that you continue to ignore the substantial resources my administration has poured into the treatment side of this problem,” LePage wrote. “We spent nearly $70 million last year on treatment and services for those addicted to drugs. The refusal to provide the resources that are truly needed to fight the ruthless and well-organized drug traffickers who are peddling powerful and deadly poison only fuels the problem of addiction.”

He then vowed to use “every resource and all legal authority available to me as Governor and Commander in Chief to fight this drug epidemic.”

The number of people who died in Maine from heroin jumped from seven in 2011 to 28 in 2012, then to 34 in 2013 and 57 in 2014, according to statistics from the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office. Meanwhile, the number of Mainers seeking treatment for heroin addiction swelled from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 last year, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse.

In his own response to LePage, Thibodeau echoed the governor’s concerns over the heroin crisis and said Maine needs “a comprehensive, statewide effort that includes law enforcement efforts and effective treatment.”

Thibodeau reiterated his support for LePage’s original request for money for additional drug enforcement agents and said “certainly more needs to be done” above the new positions funded by the Legislature. Both Eves and Thibodeau expressed interest in participating in the upcoming summit or inviting other lawmakers to participate.

“I am happy to sponsor and/or encourage the passage in the Senate of any viable recommendations or solutions that come forward from the summit or other sources,” Thibodeau wrote. “Please let me know of your thoughts and ideas as to how I can help address this issue.”

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