The number of babies born in Maine with illicit drugs or alcohol in their systems has spiked in recent years and is now at 8 percent, or about 1 in 12, of all births, according to state statistics released Friday.

The number of drug-affected babies ballooned from 178 in 2006 to 995 in 2015, according to figures provided by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The LePage administration released the information in conjunction with an announcement that it is planning a Sept. 30 summit in Portland to highlight the issue.

The increase in drug-affected babies is directly tied to the jump in opiate abuse, as Maine grapples with thousands of additional heroin and prescription opiate addicts. Those seeking treatment for opiate use has escalated from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Heroin overdose deaths have increased from seven in 2009 to 57 in 2014.

New England has become a hotbed for heroin use, and the problem is especially acute in Maine and New Hampshire, where the number of addicts continues to spiral. Hepatitis C cases have grown because of the intravenous drug use, and emergency responders have had to deal with a surge in heroin overdoses.

The LePage administration held a summit last month on how to combat the problem, focusing primarily on how to stem the flow of illegal drugs. On Sept. 30, DHHS will host a session at the Seasons Event and Conference Center in Portland to discuss strategies for reducing substance abuse among pregnant women.

“We have to get a handle on the drug epidemic ravaging our young people in Maine,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a statement. “The damage it’s doing to our babies and children is the worst symptom of this scourge.”

Pregnant women who abuse heroin are more likely to miscarry. If the baby survives childbirth, babies who were exposed to heroin in the womb can have symptoms that include excessive crying, fever, seizures, slow weight gain, vomiting, and are more likely to die in the weeks after being born, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Hospitals and other health care providers classify babies as drug-affected based on several criteria, including whether they are showing symptoms of drug withdrawal, have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or if there are reasons to believe that the mother was consuming drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, the DHHS said.

Up-to-date federal statistics on drug-affected babies weren’t immediately available.

Lauren Wert, the nurse manager at the Milestone Foundation, a Portland treatment center that includes a short-term detoxification unit, said it’s a good sign that LePage is shining a light on the topic, especially since the Sept. 30 conference will include discussion about treatment options for patients.

Treatment for uninsured patients – and many heroin addicts have lost their jobs and the insurance that goes with it – is sparse, she said.

“I’m hopeful,” Wert said. “I’m not sure how bad things have to get before we make some changes. I’m not sure what direction we’re going in.”

Women who previously didn’t qualify for Medicaid become eligible if they are pregnant, which can help them access substance-abuse treatment programs.

Still, the state needs a comprehensive solution, Wert said, including diverting addicts who would otherwise go to jail into treatment programs.

“We need to treat substance abuse as a chronic illness, and not stigmatize it,” Wert said.

Mary Mayhew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner, said in a statement that the state “must develop ways to protect those who cannot protect themselves from the tragedy of heroin and other drug addictions. Everybody in the health care system and in the community needs to be involved to prevent drug and alcohol exposure during pregnancy.”

Dr. Mark Publicker, the former president of the Northern New England Society of Addiction Medicine, will be the keynote speaker at the conference, which costs $30 to attend.

While the heroin crisis expands, treatment options appear to be shrinking, with Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook and Spectrum Health Systems’ clinic in Sanford both closing this summer, citing financial reasons.

Deborah Deatrick, senior vice president of community health for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, is encouraged by the attention being paid to the issue and is eager to see what policy solutions are proposed.

“The $64,000 question is what are we going to do about this? That’s where the important parts of these discussions lie,” Deatrick said.

David Sorensen, spokesman for DHHS, didn’t have an immediate answer on whether the administration plans to spend more money to reduce the number of drug-affected babies.

“The department is constantly evaluating ways to meet its objectives, some of which include spending additional money and some of which do not,” Sorensen said in an email response to questions.

Darren Ripley, coordinator for the Maine Alliance for Addiction Recovery, a nonprofit advocacy group, said the LePage administration should be credited with hosting a summit on the topic, but the bottom line is more recovery centers are needed.

“They should invite the population in recovery and the people needing recovery services to the summit,” Ripley said. “Those are the people they need to hear from.”

For information on the conference, go to: tinyurl.com/pv6q9qm. Providers and others interested in attending may contact Nikki Busmanis at [email protected] or 287-2816.

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