A group representing the mayors of eight Maine communities is scheduled to meet with state health officials Thursday to discuss the growing opiate addiction crisis and pitch a $2 million plan to steer addicts into treatment and away from jail.

The Mayors’ Coalition is expected to propose eight pilot projects statewide that would divert people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers from jail and into treatment, something that can be hard for addicts to access, especially those who are not insured.

The pilot project would cost $2 million in new funding, or $250,000 per site, according to the coalition. The money would be used to pay for a full-time case manager at each location to work with addicts to get into treatment and secure other resources, such as health insurance or housing assistance. The locations are not detailed in the proposal.

The remaining money could “provide flexible funding to assist addicts as they seek to stabilize their lives and move past addiction,” according to the coalition’s proposal.

Although the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook closed this summer and treatment options are few for the uninsured, a network of private, for-profit detox programs has gained a foothold in Portland, particularly in the Parkside Neighborhood. When asked if those facilities could be tapped, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said in an interview Tuesday that “all options are on the table.”

Brennan said the coalition’s plan was drafted at the request of Mary Mayhew, the commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, after an initial meeting July 6. The plan was submitted to Mayhew on Aug. 20, according to a coalition staffer.

The coalition includes mayors from Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, Saco, Sanford and Westbrook.

While the funding would largely be aimed at treatment of addiction, the coalition’s proposal also calls for additional law enforcement to cut down on the supply of illegal drugs and related crime, and enhanced prevention efforts to keep people from becoming addicted in the first place.

“We have done a lot of research across the country looking at programs that simultaneously address substance abuse and crime,” Brennan said Friday during a meeting with city councilors and the city’s legislative delegation. “This is a three-pronged approach” of prevention, law enforcement and treatment.

In addition to the mayors, House Speaker Mark Eves is considering drafting a bill to address the issue, his spokeswoman said Tuesday. “The speaker’s office is looking at this kind of program as well as several other ideas to help combat the drug epidemic. We have not made any final decisions about legislation at this time,” Jodi Quintero said.

MONEY AVAILABLE FOR NEW EFFORT

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen responded to questions about the Thursday meeting in an email, saying it was “unfortunate” that it was being publicized beforehand and “without our knowledge.”

“It certainly raises the question of whether they are more interested in publicity or in solutions to heroin addiction,” Sorensen said.

The mayors’ group did not announce the meeting, but it was mentioned during a discussion involving Portland officials and the city’s legislative delegation.

Sorensen said Mayhew would not comment on the proposal ahead of the meeting, but that “money is not the problem here.” He later said the commissioner is interested in hearing about new models and hopes to find opportunities to work with the coalition toward mutual goals.

Despite criticism of the LePage administration for cutbacks in treatment resources, Sorensen said officials have made progress in the fight against addiction by reducing the number of opiates prescribed to Medicaid patients by 45 percent – from 350,000 in 2012 to 200,000 in 2014 – and by increasing monitoring of opiate prescriptions.

Access to prescription painkillers has been blamed for starting the addiction epidemic, although many addicts have switched to heroin as less expensive and more abundant alternative.

Heroin abuse and overdose deaths are rising in Maine and across the country. The issue took on renewed urgency in Portland this summer, when 14 people overdosed on heroin and other opiates within a 24-hour period. Two people died.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the addiction surge is fueling much of the city’s crime, and that more than 90 percent of robberies are drug-related.

“Honestly, the heroin addiction thing is the only thing I’m hearing about on the streets right now,” state Rep. Diane Russell said, noting her car has been broken into twice in recent weeks. “It’s terrifying people. It’s making people feel less safe.”

MODELED AFTER PROGRAM IN SEATTLE

The number of people seeking treatment for opiate addiction, meanwhile, has tripled from 1,115 individuals in 2010 to 3,463 individuals in 2014, according to the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Maine had 100 heroin or fentanyl overdose deaths in 2014, and 63 through June 30 of this year. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate painkiller sometimes mixed with heroin.

Gov. Paul LePage convened a summit last month to address the heroin epidemic. U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, also hosted a forum on the topic with the director of the national Office of Drug Control Policy.

The plan being recommended by the Mayors’ Coalition touches on law enforcement, primarily by expanding community policing and the use of plainclothes officers in special crime-reduction units to target so-called hot spots. However, it focuses more on treatment.

The program is modeled after the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, which was pioneered in Seattle in 2011. Instead of arresting people for low-level drug possession and sales, offenders are diverted by law enforcement to community programs that provide housing, treatment and other services.

As proposed, the Maine pilot program would include eight full-time case managers, at a cost of $70,000 each for salaries and benefits. The remaining funding could be used for emergency housing, immediate health care, and clothing or other unmet needs, according to the coalition’s proposal.

Brennan said funding also could be used to purchase treatment services for addicts.

The mayor said a city task force that focused on substance abuse, however, believes that the lack of insurance is the biggest barrier to treatment. “If you have insurance, you have resources. If you don’t have insurance, that’s highly problematic,” he said.

Brennan believes the solution lies in expanding MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. However, the DHHS commissioner not only opposes expansion, but also has worked to reduce enrollment, especially among childless adults.

Sorensen, meanwhile, pushed back against the notion that treatment was not available. He also noted that rate of uninsured people fell from 16.5 percent in 2013 to 9.4 percent in 2015.

“Maine DHHS continues to meet the treatment needs of the uninsured who come to us – money is not the problem there,” he said.

This story has been corrected to note that the Mayors’ Coalition now has eight members. Auburn, Gardiner, South Portland and Waterville have dropped out this year.

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