AUGUSTA –– A $4.9 million bill designed to tackle Maine’s drug epidemic inched forward Thursday, following an endorsement by two legislative committees.

The Health and Human Services Committee voted 6-1 to advance the treatment and prevention portion of the proposal. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 11-2 to advance a law enforcement initiative that includes funding for 10 additional Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents requested by Gov. Paul LePage. Despite the committee endorsements, the bill faces opposition from Republicans in the House of Representatives and a veto threat by LePage, whose administration has indicated that it will advance its own drug treatment and prevention plan this legislative session.

Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau and Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves both support the bill. They unveiled the proposal in early December in response to the governor’s threat to call up the National Guard if lawmakers didn’t immediately provide funding for the MDEA agents. The administration said Tuesday that it had found enough funding for the agents to carry them through the current budget, which runs through June 2017. That announcement, combined with resistance from House Republicans, has put the bill’s passage in doubt.

Although Democrats control the House, they would need Republican votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

Members of the Health and Human Services Committee appeared ready to unanimously support the proposal after two work sessions, but Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, said Thursday that he felt the bill had been rushed and is incomplete.

Malaby expressed concerns over initiatives omitted in the bill during an interview Thursday morning. He voted against it after meeting privately with Republican staff at one point during the committee meeting.

“This is all a bit quick and a bit hurried,” he said. “I just question it all. I’ll leave it at that.”

The health committee amended the proposal slightly before the vote to address concerns that specific entities would receive funding without following the state’s contract process. Initially, the bill would have sent $700,000 to the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs. The amended version adds language that would send the money to an organization that provides treatment, recovery and peer support within 60 days of the bill becoming law, while also setting up a request-for-proposals process for future funding.

Two Republicans on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Reps. Ricky Long, of Sherman, and Mike Timmons, of Cumberland, voted against funding the MDEA agents.

The bipartisan proposal is one of a half-dozen bills designed to address an opiate epidemic gripping Maine and other states. Data released recently by the Maine Attorney General’s Office 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 proposal has received a mixed reaction. Treatment advocates argue that it doesn’t go far enough to address the crisis and omits funding for medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone and buprenorphine – also known as Suboxone. The discussion over medication-assisted treatment is expected to generate significant debate between lawmakers with different views of how to address addiction.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, co-chairman of the committee, acknowledged the bill’s shortcomings.

“This bill isn’t going to fix the heroin problem,” he said. “We’ll do what we can, but a lot of this will get fixed outside the halls of Augusta.”

The legislators’ plan also would expand a program 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 the Bangor area, $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 in the state.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @stevemistler

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