AUGUSTA — Republican House members said Monday that they cannot support a fast-tracked $4.9 million proposal to address the state’s drug crisis because of concerns about accountability for treatment spending.

The announcement came the day before three legislative committees are scheduled to begin vetting the plan. Although the Republicans expressed unequivocal backing for the portion of the bill that provides 10 additional agents for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, they said they cannot support more spending on treatment and prevention until the state assesses the effectiveness of current services.

The House Republicans’ position aligns with the LePage administration’s criticism of the treatment and recovery portion of the bipartisan drug plan, and sets up the possibility that the entire bill could face roadblocks to passage despite backing by Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves. Thibodeau has described the bill as a down payment on other initiatives designed to tackle a drug epidemic that claimed more lives in the first nine months of 2015 than in all of 2014.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, ranking House Republican on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said lawmakers need to delay spending on treatment and recovery pending an evaluation of the effectiveness of current programs.

“We want to make sure what we’re doing now is working and if not, change that,” she said. “My biggest concern is the huge push to rush it through all at once.

“This is a very, very big issue. I’m not willing at all to allow that to be pushed through without a full vetting of the programs, what we’re actually trying to do here, where the resources are going to go to help the people who need it. If we don’t slow it down, it’s not something that I can support personally.”

Assistant Republican leader Rep. Ellie Espling, of New Gloucester, said the drug crisis is not new and lawmakers should take a measured approach to solving it.

“This problem isn’t going to go away overnight,” she said.

Neither Sanderson nor Espling identified specific concerns with the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment services, nor did they indicate how the $76 million in services now provided should be evaluated or how long an assessment would take.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, the Democratic House leader, said the crisis requires lawmakers’ immediate attention.

“I think when you have five deaths a week from overdose, it’s an epidemic,” McCabe said. “We’re realizing day in and day out that the crisis is growing. We’ve been talking with folks who say it will probably get worse before it gets better, so for us to kick the can down the road is not a solution.”

The bipartisan proposal is one of a half-dozen bills designed to address an opioid epidemic gripping Maine and other states. Data released Wednesday by the Maine Office of Attorney General showed that heroin overdose deaths in Maine through the first nine months of last year had eclipsed the number of deaths for all of 2014 – 71 through Sept. 30 compared with 57 in 2014. The statistics are even more alarming in neighboring New Hampshire, where the state’s attorney general projected last week that more than 400 people would die from overdose deaths in 2015.

The crisis in Maine has prompted Gov. Paul LePage to call for a crackdown on trafficking, while state lawmakers have pursued an approach that also includes additional funding for treatment and recovery programs. In early December, legislative leaders released a plan to provide the governor with $2.4 million for 10 additional agents at the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

The legislators’ plan also would expand a program being used by the Scarborough Police Department that invites people who possess drugs or drug paraphernalia to turn them in to police and get help without facing arrest. Another $2.5 million would be allocated to treatment and recovery programs, including $1 million for a new 10-bed detox unit in Bangor, $600,000 to increase access to residential treatment for the uninsured, and $200,000 for outpatient services. Another $600,000 would be devoted to doubling the number of recovery centers throughout the state.

The treatment and recovery spending plan has been applauded by members of the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs, but it also has been criticized for not funding medication-assisted treatment with methadone and buprenorphine – also known as Suboxone.

The discussion over medication-assisted treatment is expected to generate significant debate, activating ideological and philosophical differences between lawmakers with different views of how to address addiction. The caution urged by House Republicans on Monday over a modest increase in treatment and recovery spending signals that the debate is starting early.

House Republican leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette of Newport said a number of other issues, including the funding of county jails and the voter-approved measure to bolster the Maine Clean Elections Act, could create a budget shortfall this session.

“When you add it all up, we could be looking at a significant budget shortfall before we even begin the process of addressing drug treatment and prevention,” he said. “We must make sure we are doing as much as we possibly can with existing resources before we commit additional taxpayer money to address the drug problem or anything else.”

Eves, the House speaker, said in a statement, “Every day, more Maine families struggle to save the lives of their loved ones suffering from crippling addiction. While some members would rather posture in front of a microphone, we are focused on using available resources to mount a serious effort to tackle the drug crisis and give families, law enforcement, and treatment providers the tools they need.”

LePage has been critical of the drug proposal. In December he wrote a letter to Eves, mocking the proposal’s comprehensiveness, detail and timing while accusing the Democratic leader of testing the “political wind” before responding to the drug crisis. The governor also asserted that lawmakers were throwing “more and more of the taxpayers’ money at treatment and recovery programs with no accountability over how efficient or effective these programs really are.”

His remarks are similar to the ones made Monday by House Republicans. In December, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the Press Herald that the state was evaluating contracts to ensure that state dollars are being used specifically for treatment. While the current spending can be matched against a provider’s budget, she said, “it has not allowed the kind of transparency … of individualized claims.”

“While administrative overhead obviously is part of the cost of delivering a service, we want to make sure that … we’re not paying too much for those embedded overhead costs and detracting from paying for access to treatment,” she said.


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